… after taste …
Because of the title and the aura of its publicity, I expected Dames at Sea to be a 1930’s escapist musical and that’s what I thought I was seeing, a story set in the early 30’s about actors fighting to make a success on Broadway. Glittering Hollywood-type production numbers, tuneful songs, virtuoso tap dancing, and a rags to riches story with love conquering everything left over, it was all there. It was moving to think that this show filled with optimism and patriotism emerged in the face of the Great Depression. And downright amazing, in fact, in the way it anticipated musicals still to come like Pal Joey, The Pajama Game and South Pacific — note those “Dames” in the title.
I applauded hard when Ruby — just a little girl from Utah — arrives in NYC to make it big on Broadway with nothing but a pair of tap shoes and gets an audition for a big show her first day in town. I cheered when the theatrical troupe, thrown out of their theater on Opening Night, got to present their play on a ship!
It occurred to me that the cast of seven was too small for a big musical but, enjoying the show, I explained to myself Bay Street must have transposed it from a large cast musical — all the more remarkable that these seven talented performers were coming across with such great effect. It also crossed my mind that obstacles were overcome a little too easily — even for a 30’s musical — but it was such a relief to feel, thanks to a dose of good old suspended disbelief, that life could be like that I overlooked its foolishness. By the end when the Big Star who had interfered with our ingenue heroine’s day-long rise to the top and even tried to vamp her true love came over to Ruby’s side a good part of the audience – the adults more than the younger people there — was filled with high elation! A little like the night Obama won the election — for a moment everyone seemed on the same team!
Only, as I learned afterward, that’s not what this show is.
Produced off-Broadway in 1968 at the height of the protests and national self-doubt associated with the Vietnam war, Dames at Sea doesn’t anticipate South Pacific and the other great post WWII musicals as I’d given it credit for, it takes bits and pieces of them and embeds them in the structure of a Depression era extravaganza in order to throw an ironic light on just the earlier 20th-century optimism and patriotism it had seemed, during this performance, to celebrate. Presented four years after Susan Sontag’s “epoch defining” article “Notes on Camp,” Dames at Sea is just that — pure camp.
A date in the program would have helped. After thoroughly enjoying the show believing it to be one thing — along with most of the audience, I think — and finding out was totally other, I didn’t like it as much — I sort of felt I’d been had. The theater, it seemed, had underplayed the play’s context so as to offer light summer fare, but it wasn’t true to the nature of the show.
I’m a fan of Bay Street theatre which does excellent work on a regular basis, but Dames at Sea is not a “rollicking valentine to the Hollywood musical of the 30’s” as they call it in their ad lead line, much quoted in the local papers: it’s parody, and not just of earlier musicals but of significant societal values. It was an off-Broadway hit at a time when societal disaffection ruled the day. In contrast to how it would have come across in 1968, here, shorn of its irony, in retrospect it seems superfluous.
Dames at Sea plays at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, L.I., NY August 11 – September 6.