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Remarkably fresh for a 35-year-old spoof of musicals that were 35 years past their prime when it premiered, Dames at Sea bobs brightly on an ocean of camp at the Olney Theatre. Before attending, I figured the show’s affectionate mockeryof the sort of movie musical in which love-struck sailor Dick Powell would make his first entrance just in time to catch fainting, tap-dancing ingénue Ruby Keeler in his armswould chiefly appeal to the seniors at nearby Leisure World, but an amused-to-the-point-of-raucousness high-school crowd on opening night suggested otherwise.
I’ve no idea what the teenagers around me made of the ’30s-name-dropping lyrics (“It’s not Leslie Howard/Or even Noel Coward/It’s you, it’s you, it’s you”) with which Olney’s Dick (Sol Baird) croons his Ruby (Meghan Touey) back to consciousness, but they seemed to find the pair’s pointedly wide-eyed innocence pretty hilarious. And they were actively hooting when the comic second bananas added a little fresh-scrubbed sexiness to the mix: Dick’s buddy Lucky (played by a tap-dancer with the movie-musical-ready moniker Brad Bradley) planted his hands on the, er, cheeks of his sweetie, Joan (Sherri L. Edelen), and the theater’s decibel level increased significantly.
The double-entendres of a theoretically worldly Broadway star, Mona Kent (Deborah Tranelli), and the flustered comebacks of her current producer and her long-at-sea first love (both played by Jack Kyrieleison) also seemed to land solidly, though the students didn’t always distinguish between intentional wordplay and accidents of pronunciation. (The sailor-referencing term “seaman,” for instance, could not possibly have been said in a non-laugh-provoking way with this crowd.)
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This is not to suggest, however, that they were missing the basic joke. They may never have seen Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, or the half-dozen other black-and-white Keeler-Powell extravaganzas that inspired Dames at Sea’s creators to craft a goofy parody in miniature, but music videos have employed enough of the same techniques that they could chortle along knowingly as the cast crooned syrupy ballads and tapped its troubles away to Jim Wise’s loopy, period-perfect Oriental and Latin numbers.
The show’s enforced minimalism is, incidentally, part of the joke. Originally produced in a tiny off-Broadway house, Dames at Sea delights in reproducing Busby Berkeley-style legions of uniformed tap-dancers and ever-bigger finales with little more than a stage-filling cast of six and a few confetti-spewing cannons. At Olney, Dallett Norris’ winking, self-aware staging turns a tiny castheaded by a lanky leading man who dances like a young Tommy Tune and a kewpie-doll ingénue whose piercing soprano resembles that of original Ruby Bernadette Petersloose on designer James Fouchard’s chrome-framed deco settings and encourages choreographer Ilona Kessell to coax extravagance from thin air. She does, and the result is an invigorating, cheerful, theatrical pick-me-up.
That’s moremuch, much morethan can be said for the forced comic shenanigans trying to pass for entertainment in the National Theatre’s current tenant, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. Though written by the same Charles Busch who penned the drag amusements Psycho Beach Party, Red Scare on Sunset, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Allergist’s Wife is almost alarmingly conventional and so socially conservative it seems crafted for people who think The Golden Girls was too racy for prime time.
The evening chronicles the midlife meltdown of a Jewish New Yorker named Marjorie (erstwhile TV personality Valerie Harper), who’s in a funk over the death of her analyst and getting little support from her self-absorbed husband (Mike Burstyn) and bowel-obsessed mother (Sondra James). When a long-lost, free-spirited grade-school friend (Jana Robbins) arrives uninvited at Marjorie’s door, peddling a philosophy of self-expression that embraces everything from ethnic cooking to free love, hijinks theoretically ensue. Until, that is, Marjorie pulls herself together and realizes she’s happier than she thought.
The problem is not so much that this is material Neil Simon would find overly pat but that the cast, in delivering it, does so much mugging, it’s a wonder no patron has yet filed charges. Lynne Meadow’s staging relies overmuch on sitcom stratagemsbroad double-takes behind characters’ backs, line delivery pitched to the raftersto sell the punch lines, and, to judge from the tepid response the show got on opening night, local audiences aren’t buying. CP