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Musical catches our throats and tickles our funny bones

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

People who go for over-the-top slapstick (think a Carol Burnett or Sid Caesar sketch) with physical humor, double and triple takes, exaggerated characterizations and some boffo songs and dances should adore Dames at Sea, the little musical playing through May 19 at the Angel Cabaret Theatre in New Port Richey.

Dames is a spoof of those madcap 1930s song-and-dance movies where the worst thing that could happen is a broken fingernail or a sore throat. The genre itself was kind of goofy; a spoof of the genre has to be even goofier to work.

The Angel production works. Well, for the most part, it works.

Since the Dames story is sketchy -- boy songwriter meets aspiring girl singer-dancer, falls in love, nearly messes up by fawning all over a big-name star who promises to make him famous, then recovers for the big clinch at the end -- the show relies on singing, dancing and comedy to keep it going.

Dames has plenty of all three, and the songs that don't move the story along in traditional Broadway musical fashion are made to fit because they're composed by the leading man and others are just trying them out.

Dames starts as the temperamental, gold-digging leading lady of a Broadway musical, Mona Kent (Elizabeth Brandel), extols the virtues of wealth in Wall Street. The innocent ingenue Ruby, played by sweet-faced, sweet-voiced Equity actor Kristin Graf, arrives at the theater from Centerville, Utah. Ruby quickly meets the young sailor, Dick (Equity actor William Garon), and they immediately fall in love.

Love seems to be everywhere, as comical sidekicks Joan, played with a gum-snapping Noo Yawk accent by Chelle St. Pierre, and her sailor, Lucky, done with cheeky spunk by James Grenelle, dream of their Choo-Choo Honeymoon.

The kids are all working on a stage show, which gives the Dames' writers a chance to insert a show-within-a-show and use one of their unrelated songs, Singapore Sue.

Unfortunately, a wrecking crew demolishes the theater, ostensibly to make room for a roller rink (and setting up a local joke, when Joan quips that a roller rink "up the road" has been made into a theater, a reference to the Show Palace Dinner Theatre).

That means the kids have to find a new venue for their show. Mona looks up a former beau, The Captain (David Craven) of the battleship where Dick and Lucky are stationed, and persuades him to have the show on his deck.

As Mona and the captain, a man with a strange, unidentifiable accent, recall their torrid nights in the romantically exotic port of, um, Pensacola, the kids prepare to do their show on the battleship. After some jealous misunderstandings, it all leads to a happy ending.

The working parts of this production include marvelous comedy moments such as The Beguine, The Captain and Mona dance, and when Mona attempts to strike a sexy pose as she belts a sizzling That Mister of Mine and ends up rolling over a wall, showing her fanny and losing all her dignity.

Carol Burnett herself couldn't have made those scenes funnier than Brandel did. This talented woman has a humongous voice, but she also has the confidence to make herself appear completely ridiculous without fear.

Garon's smooth mezzo baritone gets a good workout, in solo on Broadway Baby and in duo with Ruby throughout the show. Those who saw the Angel debut production, Nite Club Confidential, will recognize Garon's melodramatic characterization as being close -- okay, too close -- to his characterization of a jaded lover boy in that show. That portrayal worked fine for the shallow, self-important Nite Club character, but Dames at Sea's Dick needs to be sweet and sincere, not cynical. Garon should tone it down and make the audience love Dick, not snicker at him.

After all, Dick and Ruby should be giving us a winsome, starry-eyed contrast to Joan and Lucky's brash enthusiasm and The Captain and Mona's purple passion.

Such contrast would also make the first act ebb and flow the way the second act does. As it is, the first act starts at full throttle and grating full volume and, with a few exceptional moments, stays there until the act's closing number, making the audience exhausted instead of exhilarated.

Graf's Ruby not only gives us a chance to catch our breath, but her gentle and tender ways also give us a catch in our throats. Her mellow The Sailor of My Dreams in act one is a shining moment, and her cheery Star Tar sung near the end as she perches on the battleship's guns lifts the spirits like a bracing sea breeze.

If you go

Dames at Sea, at Angel Cabaret Theatre, 5201 U.S. 19, New Port Richey. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. May 8 and 18, and 6 p.m. Sundays, through May 19. Doors open two hours before each show for buffet and cash bar. Dinner and show, $32.50; show only, $19.95; ages 12 and younger, $19.95 and $14.95. Call (727) 847-0019.

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