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CdA Summer Theatre stages Depression-era ‘Dames at Sea’

Must-sea musical – a campy production that pushed Bernadette Peters to stardom

Darcy Wright plays Ruby, and Cameron Lewis stars as Dick in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production of “Dames at Sea.” (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Darcy Wright plays Ruby, and Cameron Lewis stars as Dick in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production of “Dames at Sea.” (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

What better time than the Great Recession for a “new” musical of the 1930s? “Dames at Sea,” which opens tonight at the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, is a 1930s musical in almost every way: In song style (light and tuneful), in plot (spunky girl becomes Broadway star) and in dance style (tap, tap, tap).

The only way it’s not a ’30s musical?

It’s from 1968, when it debuted as a campy spoof of 1930’s musicals. This is the musical that propelled Bernadette Peters to fame.

“It’s a parody of shows like ‘42nd Street’ and ‘Anchors Aweigh,’ a loving spoof,” said Roger Welch, the director. “An unknown girl comes into town and the next thing you know, she’s in a Broadway show.”

The songs are not exactly ’30s tunes either – they were written for this show by Jim Wise, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller – but they evoke the classic Depression-era songs. Even the titles sound like they came straight out of an MGM musical: “Broadway Baby,” “Good Times Are Here to Stay,” “The Beguine” and “Raining In My Heart.”

Here’s how Mel Gussow of the New York Times explained it: “‘Dames at Sea’ manages to have it every which way – as pastiche, as parody and romantic musical comedy, a trick that is accomplished with affection. The key, of course, is in the style, which is feather-light. The show is always aware of its own absurdities – as the movies it is based on usually were not – but never sacrifices charm in the interest of ridicule.”

The CdA Summer Theatre version stars Ellen Travolta as Mona, the legendary Broadway diva, who becomes the “foil” for the young and spunky Ruby, played by Coeur d’Alene native Darcy Wright.

The show is actually quite small – it has only seven cast members. The others are Jerry Christakos, Nick Wheat, Jennifer Davis, Christopher Moll and Krystle Armstrong.

“Instead of giant chorus numbers, the leads become the chorus,” said Welch.

The first act takes place in a 42nd Street theater in New York. The theater is torn down during rehearsals so they have to find a new place to perform. So, in one of the campier plot developments, they end up doing the show on – a battleship.

Yup, a battleship. Thus the title number, “Dames at Sea.”

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