The 49-year-old Dames at Sea, which set sail Oct. 22 at the Helen Hayes on its maiden Broadway voyage after big splashes Off-Broadway and Off-Off, is the first musical in many a moon (maybe, ever) to lead off with screen credits of its stage cast and crew. It leaves no doubt precisely where your time machine has crashed.
Randy Skinner, who has lightly skippered the show to the Main Stem as its director-choreographer, dreamed up this inspired opening himself, and he was quite specific about it. "We did an exact replica of the '42nd Street' movie credits from 1933," he explained — and that "exact" is italicized, right down to the blocky type font and introducing each of the six-member cast in closeups framed by a life preserver.
"I knew that I really wanted to recreate this feeling of being in a movie theatre," said Skinner, "and then go from black-and-white film to live color. It sets the tone."
See John Bolton, Lesli Margherita and the Cast of Dames at Sea Celebrate Opening Night! Full Coverage of Red Carpet, Curtain Call and Cast Party
George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jim Wise, who composed the score, echoed the '30s movie musicals as affectionately and accurately as Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend invoked stage shows of the '20s. It's a pity they never lived to see their handiwork handspring across a Broadway stage.
"It's a delightful score," opted Rob Berman, who conducted Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations of it and his own vocal and dance arrangements. "I love it. It's so much fun, and it so perfectly captures the essence of that period, but the songs themselves — they're pastiche, for sure — are actually great songs on their own."
A dozen years before 42nd Street was adapted into a stage musical, Dames at Sea was giddily making sport of Busby Berkeley's landmark movie, tying tin cans to iconic characters like Julian Marsh (the washed-up taskmaster attempting a desperate comeback as a director), Dorothy Brock (the temperamental diva who stirs up trouble for everybody) and Peggy Sawyer (the novice-miraculously-turned-star).
In the original 1966 edition of this seagoing 42nd Street at Caffe Cino, the Brock character was sidelined with seasickness, prompting the green-as-grass newcomer to go out there a raw kid from the chorus and literally come back Bernadette Peters.
Skinner discovered how well the show still played when he did a dinner-theatre edition of it in Annapolis three years ago. "I thought, 'Ya know, this has never played Broadway, it has never had an organized national tour, and it deserves both, so I got some people to investigate and see where the first-class rights of Dames at Sea were. Within eight months, they had secured the first-class rights, and here we are."
Few people are better qualified to direct and choreograph Dames at Sea than Skinner, who assisted Gower Champion in the original 1980 42nd Street and reconstructed Champion's steps and added new choreography for the 2001 revival.
His Peggy Sawyer in Dames at Sea is a real one, Eloise Kropp, fresh from the ensemble of On the Town where she was High School Girl, Doll Girl, Shawl Girl and understudy for Elizabeth Stanley. Her character is Ruby (as in Keeler, the film Peggy Sawyer) and comes to NYC from Utah with a suitcase containing nothing but red tap shoes.)
The "Anytime Annie" (Ginger Rogers) facsimile for Dames at Sea is named Joan and played by Mara Davi, who, ironically enough, made her Broadway debut playing Peggy Sawyer for Skinner a decade ago. "I've worked with Randy on five different productions," she beamed cheerfully. "We did White Christmas together; Of Thee I Sing; No, No, Nanette; this; and I did 42nd Street. It was my very first professional job. It feels like home to me, doing these dances. Nothing feels better in my body.
"There are only six of us on stage, and it's nonstop for every one of us. I never go downstairs to my dressing room once the show starts, except at intermission. We don't have time. We just sit in the wings and watch each other and enjoy the show."
The Broadway veteran in the cast is the ever-reliable John Bolton, who doubles his fun with two roles — a director with the felicitously alliterative name of Harry Hennessey and a ship captain. The show shifts settings in the extreme from Act I (backstage of a Broadway house marked for an immediate wrecking ball) to Act II (a battleship where the show goes chaotically on, come hell or high water).
Kropp's agent, Michael Goddard, a longtime Bolton lookalike, took a few bows at the after-party at Sardi's for playing one of the two roles. "People have been confusing us for at least 20 years," Bolton admitted. "We call each other Michael Bolton."
Lesli Margherita, who pretty much rules the roost as the temperamental star with the raging ego, is having trouble getting off her Broadway block. "A little more than a month ago," she said, "I finished 1,000 performances of Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda the Musical at the Shubert across the street. I still have things in my dressing room over there I haven't picked up. There were a couple of weeks of crossover where I was rehearsing this show during the day and performing Matilda at night, but it's the best kind of crossover. You spend your life wanting to have work, and I had this.
"This is the most fun I've ever had onstage. I get to live in this 1930s world. Movie musicals were over the top anyway, and to embody this on a stage is wonderful."
The two ingénues have been outfitted with sailor-suited swains. Paired with Davi is a Broadway-bowing Danny Gardner. "The adrenaline was making me shaky — all of us shaky — but tonight was so much fun," he said. "I just had a blast. I don't know how to describe it. It's like my birthday, Christmas and everything good rolled into one."
Cary Tedder glides through the role of "sailor-songwriter" Dick, who is caught in the middle of an amorous tug-of-war between Kropp and Margherita, with the greatest of ease. The assignment, he said, "seems very natural to me. It doesn't feel like anything I've constructed. It doesn't feel like a mask that I've put on. I think that's why Randy cast the number of us the way he did — because it feels very natural. A lot of it, for me, is just to try to do my best — not necessarily be somebody else."
Among the first-nighters was the actress who almost landed the star-making lead in the original Off-Off Broadway version of Dames at Sea. "It was down to Bernadette and me," she said. "Then, my agent insisted I do Canterbury Tales instead because it was Broadway, but Dames at Sea was the show I wanted to do." The good news is that Canterbury Tales got her Tony-nominated, and Sandy Duncan was on her way.