BWW Reviews: Tap the Night Away with DAMES AT SEA at Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
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by Larissa Mount
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, right in downtown Raleigh, is making the most of their small space by taking on the ambitious project of staging Dames at Sea, the musical which is most known for launching the career of Bernadette Peters in the late 1960s. Though the space is intimate, the show is big.
This musical is clearly a parody of sorts, its target being Hollywood musicals of days gone by, when a guy and a girl fall in love before even being introduced, and where the major plot twist is only outdone in its unlikelihood by the resolution to said problem. This show tells the story of Ruby, just off the bus from Utah, who in the span of one day falls in love, gets cast as a dancer in a Broadway show, saves the show by moving it to a Navy ship, takes over for the star, becomes a hit sensation, and gets married.
Doing a project like this is incredibly ambitious. For that willingness to take a risk, I must applaud Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. They took a risk with this show, and some elements really paid off, while others fell a little wide of the mark. In order for the parody to work, the unrealistic elements of Hollywood movie musicals need to be played up to the hilt, they need to be that much more over-the-top and absurdly unrealistic than the movies in order to prove the point of the parody, and the level of camp needs to go through the roof. That’s how the audience knows they’re poking fun at those shows and not trying to be one. While riding the fine line between embracing the camp and playing it straight, this production unfortunately leaned toward the latter. The attempts at over-the-top dance numbers didn’t hit their mark due to prop complications (hats falling, mops getting knocked over, not catching umbrellas), although they had the right idea. The highlight of the show by far was the number “Star Tar,” when the dancers ditched the props and showed off their tap skills, skills which were hidden by said umbrellas and mops up until that point. The cast of young actors is quite the group of tappers, and that number validated my evening at the theater.
Perhaps part of the problem with Dames at Sea is generational, and is really outside of this particular production, but applies to the work itself. Originally performed in 1966, this show asks the audience to wax nostalgic for things I don’t remember. I missed most of the popular culture references made in the show. For audiences in 1966, I would imagine Dames at Sea would evoke the kind of nostalgia for Hollywood musicals that folks in their mid-twenties like myself now get from something like disco music or M*A*S*H – it’s a popular culture monolith which happened just barely before my time, and I grew up surrounded in its cultural influence. For those who remember growing up in the immediate aftermath of the overwhelming success of the Hollywood musical, I would imagine this show to still be quite relevant and nostalgically entertaining. However, not a lot of people in my generation have even heard of Busby Berkeley and Ruby Keeler, and I don’t know of too many twenty-somethings who would be interested in seeing a show they wouldn’t understand.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fabulous performance of the ridiculously talented Kate McMillan, who played the bona fide star Mona Kent. Her instincts for playing that character were perfect, and she was not afraid to embrace the inherent campiness of playing the glamorous star who is accustomed to getting what she wants. Her singing voice filled that space, and I imagine it could fill spaces much larger; and she nailed it with the tone of her speaking voice and her character’s particular mannerisms. She’s an actress who will be going places fast – go see her now while you can, so you can say you saw her when. Additionally, Sara Spadacene was quite likable in her professional debut as the best-friend-slash-voice-of-reason, Joan. The supporting ensemble, particularly the gentlemen, were well-cast and had plenty of wonderful opportunities to show off their dance skills with several enjoyable tap and soft-shoe numbers.
Dames at Sea runs through July 15. For tickets and more information, visit www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org.