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‘Dames’ performers milk sub-par material

I’ve always believed that the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre was so good, so professional, that it could make even the most insipid material entertaining.

“Dames at Sea” was the most serious test ever of that theory. Against the steepest odds, the CDA Summer Theatre passed the test Thursday night. The seven-person cast turned this second-rate 1968 parody of ’30s musicals into something that could be fairly described as “cute” and “fun,” the two words I heard repeatedly from the playgoers around me.

Not often do I attend a show in which I can admire every single performance and have zero respect for the material (the songs, the dialogue, the plot, the jokes). In this show, the totally professional cast, under the direction of Roger Welch, took on the entire task of entertaining an audience for two hours. They succeeded through sheer force of talent and of personality.

Cases in point:

•Veteran trouper Ellen Travolta turned a bit of stage business involving a piano into an extended seminar on physical comedy. After a long and hilarious struggle, she ended up flat on her back – high atop an upright piano.

•Another veteran trouper, Jerry Christakos, suddenly ripped off his naval captain’s tunic to reveal a poofy Carmen Miranda shirt, and launched into a hilarious version of “Begin the Beguine.”

•The immensely talented Darcy Wright turned a less-than-memorable ballad, “It’s Raining in My Heart” into a musical highlight with her impeccable vocal delivery.

•Cameron Lewis – thrust into the lead role of Dick late in rehearsals when Nick Wheat injured a knee – came through with a polished and flawless performance.

The rest of the cast – Jennifer Davis, Christopher Moll and Krystle Armstrong – all made the absolute most of what they had to work with. Welch and choreographer Tralen Doler did an excellent job of creating some fun, old-fashioned tap-dance numbers.

This was harder than usual, because even though “Dames at Sea” makes fun of Busby Berkeley-type musicals, this is actually a very small musical. There is no chorus line and no orchestra. The music is provided strictly by piano and drums. Those seven actor-dancers carry the entire burden, and they carry it well.

Which leads us back to that material, written by George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise. The songs are weak imitations of great songs (Cole Porter could have sued over “Begin the Beguine”) and the plot is even thinner than a lightweight ’30s musical. Here’s a synopsis. First act: Young Ruby fears her “guy” is in love with the predatory Mona, but she’s wrong. Second act: Repeat the above.

“Dames at Sea” is nowhere near as good as the shows it aims to spoof. Both audience and performers would have been better off with a genuine, classic ’30s musical. The banter would have been snappier, the spectacle would have been brighter and the songs would have been far superior.