If you've forgotten why you ever loved musicals -- scared by disasters like the overhyped, lite-pop Rent or the tourist-pleasing stuff that takes home the Tonys -- take a chance on Dames at Sea. Sure, the Busby Berkeley parody has more sunshine-and-lollipops, happy-happy, can-do attitude than Up With People on Prozac, but it's built on the fundamentals -- wit, tap, and talent -- that once made musicals valid theater.
A play can not be Chekhov and still be smart; Dames at Sea is a clever satire of patriotic wartime musicals. Creators George Haimsohn, Robin Miller, and Jim Wise rewrote lines from 42nd Street and twitted Tin Pan Alley standards in telling their story of a Norma Desmond-like star, Mona Kent. When the WPA tears down her theater on opening night (to build a roller rink), the show -- conveniently named Dames at Sea -- moves to a Navy ship docked near the Great White Way. Ingenue Ruby is called on to take over the lead from the seasick diva -- blithely learning the music and choreography in a five-minute scene change -- and becomes the toast of Broadway. Did we mention our romantic lead is a songwriter and the captain of his ship is an old flame of Mona's? Dames at Sea finishes with a confettied triple wedding worthy of the fluffiest Shakespearean romance.
There's absolutely nothing original in the stock characters, music, or plot -- except for an extra twist or two of irony and innuendo, as when Ruby chimes, "I'm the big bell sailors love to ring," or when ship's Capt. David Eric throws in a few well-placed butt wriggles. Says sailor songwriter Richard ("Call me Dick") beaming at hometown gal Ruby: "When I look into those big brown eyes there's only one thing I want to do -- sing ... and dance!" Dames doesn't want you to take it seriously any more than the dancing gangsters in Guys and Dolls do. Framed by an elegant deco proscenium, the cluster of six actors pumps out a cast-of-thousands energy. As best friend and girl Friday Joan, Paula Leggett Chase floats through the tap numbers with whiplash legs in seamed stockings. Andrea Chamberlain plays Ruby, who has gobs of tap talent too -- but she's willing to throw it all away for "the sailor of her dreams." It's up to the selfless Joan to shove her into the spotlight.
We know musicals are dippy, and Dames at Sea shares the joke. The boat of chorus boys sinks on the way to the poop-deck stage, so the lovelorn captain lends his sailors to the show. "But can they tap dance?" asks Mona. "On this ship they can!" replies the captain. Dancing sailors are ridiculous, but damn, they do look fabulous tapping in tight, flared pants. Musicals are ruled by aesthetic, not logic. And Dames at Sea reassures you there's nothing wrong with that.
-- Julie Chase
It's a Man's World
"Men Dancing XV." At the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, Marina & Buchanan, June 4-6. Call 441-3687.
Ever since the "Men Dancing" revue began back in 1982, curator Gary Palmer and his locally participating dancers have grappled, sometimes clumsily, with gay themes and the role of men in dance, as well as coped with persistent gripes about the show's ragged quality overall. But this year's edition, which began with a cartwheeling cavalcade of bare-chested men in white trousers and ended with a hip-swiveling clutch of bare-chested men in grass skirts, was in pretty good shape. It was technically and thematically divergent, and the issues that dancers felt forced to confront back in the early '80s have begun to fade into non-issues: Gay themes and same-sex partnering are par for the course anymore, and all-male performance is less of a novelty in the age of Les Ballets Trockadero and Matthew Bourne's all-male production of Swan Lake.
Choreographer Marcelo Pereira, a return guest and consistent crowd-pleaser, was a smart opening choice. His Capoeira Maneira built tension and speed into the Brazilian martial art and dance hybrid capoeira, and his ensemble is well-schooled in its acrobatic athleticism. One by one, the dancers came tumbling out of the wings, cartwheeling and backflipping their way across the front of the stage in a hypnotic crisscrossing pattern. Each pass increased in difficulty, so that by the end of the first section, viewers were gasping with admiration at the high-flying kicks and spirals. Capoeira's friendly competition, born in the African slave communities of Brazil as both self-defense and entertainment, combines the bobbing and weaving of boxing with the agility of gymnastics, and as dancers squared off in a jam session, there were glimmers of break dancing's roots.
After the adrenalin rush of Capoeira Maneira, Within Reach was a decided letdown. Smuin Ballet/SF dancer Michael Kruzich proved that sappy love duets aren't the exclusive province of hetero pas de deux with this piece, which he choreographed and danced with Arturo Fernandez. Reach set off the warning signals early as Kruzich and Fernandez, to the taped accompaniment of ocean waves, rolled around the floor and each other, and pointed simultaneously (to what? a tugboat? a beach ball? Jaws?) at something in the distance. Kruzich and Fernandez are fine dancers, but the meaningful glances and lingering embraces overshadowed the negligible choreography in this work, giving them little opportunity to prove their mettle.
Palmer's premiere Natural Selections also left viewers struggling to supply some sort of narrative to a trio danced by Jeffrey Crumine and guest artists Never Navarro Aguilar and Enrique Olaechea of El Ballet Nacional del Per, as singers in an upstage corner layered operatic vocals over a pulsing club soundtrack. Palmer capitalized on the physical disparities between his dancers (Crumine is a head taller than the Peruvians) to create interesting tableaux and unusual partnering, but the pace was uneven and the intent unclear; the most literal reading of Natural Selection would seem to be that, uh, opposites attract.