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'Dames at Sea' was originally a micro-budget stage musical that affectionately guyed the big-budget Warners musicals directed by Busby Berkeley in the 1930s. The tiny off-off-Broadway musical had the good luck to cast the mega-talented Bernadette Peters in her star-making role. I didn't see the original stage production, but I've seen some amateur and stock versions in addition to this television special.
This TV production of 'Dames at Sea' retains the low-scale, easy-does-it staging of the original production, only slightly more magnified with minor embellishments that the original show couldn't afford, such as chorus dancers. This is one mini-musical that could have been improved with some of the big-budget splash that ruined Ken Russell's film version of 'The Boy Friend'. As it stands, the most notable thing about this missed opportunity is that the female roles have been cast with actresses possessing complementary names: Ann-Margret, Ann Miller, Anne Meara.
Several of the characters in 'Dames at Sea' are lifted bodily from character templates in the Warners musicals starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell. Just in case we don't take the wink, the characters are named Ruby, Dick and Joan.
SPOILERS AHEAD. In Act One, we witness the final rehearsal of a Broadway musical that's allegedly long on talent but definitely short on production money. The star is Mona Kent (Ann Miller), tap-dancing her way through the big production number 'Wall Street'. Oops! Mona can't go on tonight! But who can replace her? Could it be that fresh-faced young ingenue Ruby, played by Ann-Margret with a lush coiffure of carrot-coloured hair? Meanwhile, the creditors are circling. Here comes the funniest line in this show: 'There's a bulldozer in the lobby, and it's heading for the orchestra pit.'
In Act Two, our lads and lassies have patriotically joined the Navy, where the boys lament that there are no 'Dames at Sea'. Fred Gwynne, who played the theatrical producer in Act One, has now become the ship's captain. Ahoy? Ahoy vey!
'Dames at Sea' is light-hearted good fun, but I wonder how wide its appeal is. It has the general appearance of a *parody* of those old-time musicals (as was done in the brilliant 'Movie Movie'), but audiences expecting a parody might be confused by the fact that 'Dames at Sea' is merely a gentle pastiche.
The songs -- lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, music by Jim Wise -- are part of the problem. These ditties are deft pastiches of songs from the beloved 1930s Warner musicals. Thus, we have here 'The Echo Waltz' instead of 'The Shadow Waltz'. Mona's big number 'Wall Street' manages to evoke both the title number of '42nd Street' and 'The Gold-Digger Song' (better known as 'We're in the Money'). Anne Meara's comic number 'Choo-Choo Honeymoon' is a pastiche of 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo' and 'Honeymoon Hotel'. I'm very impressed by how closely (and affectionately) these numbers echo the originals. But that's the problem: they're paraphrases, not parodies. When we hear those numbers sung here, we have a vague sense of having heard them before ... in bigger and better movie musicals. The nearest we get to a parody here is 'Shanghai Sue', which takes a few bites out of 'Shanghai Lil' from 'Footlight Parade'.
For my quids, the most interesting thing on offer here is Ann Miller's slinky dance number in a skin-tight rubber cat suit. Apparently she had injured herself shortly before this production began, and was required to wear a rubber compression bandage on one knee ... which gave somebody the idea of Miller doing this entire number in a form-fitting rubber outfit. Fetish alert!
I usually enjoy Anne Meara, but here -- as the best friend of ingenue Ruby -- she's doing that prole Brooklyn accent she affects occasionally, trying to channel the spirits of Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. In the leading role of Ruby, Ann-Margret is a vortex of talent and sex appeal, but I wish she had done this role five or even ten years earlier. In 'Bye Bye Birdie', Ann-Margret was extremely believable as a dewy virgin who was eager to lose her virginity; here, she's playing a role even more virginal, but the actress has acquired a knowingness and maturity (and some age lines) which make her less believable in the role. Indeed, except for Gwynne and Ann Miller, all the actors are too old for their roles.
The period setting is not well evoked, and some of the lines here may baffle modern viewers. When Ann-Margret sings to an offstage Franklin D Roosevelt: 'Tell Mrs Roosevelt this was my day', modern audiences might fail to realise that this is a reference to 'My Day', the syndicated newspaper column that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote during World War Two. Another number, 'It's You', consists of a laundry-list of names that were famous in the 1930s, some of which are now forgotten.
This production of 'Dames at Sea' is enjoyable, but you'll probably have a better time if you seek out a local high-school production of this same show, and give those eager kids a big round of applause. This TV version has too many missed opportunities, and I'll rate it only 5 out of 10.
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