Grab your coat and get your HAAAAAT, leave your mind back on the doorstep. Only the most jaded theater-goers will fail to tap their toes and grin at the bouncy rhythms and tuneful silliness of "Dames at Sea," the 1968 off-Broadway hit revived at Olney Theatre Center. Under Dallett Norris's direction, the production is energetic, good-humored, amusingly acted and terrifically sung but wanting in visual glitz and dance pizazz.
The smiley innocence of the show drew giggles opening night from high school groups, who mentally added lewd double-entendres to old-fashioned slang. Still, those kids had a vociferously good time watching this non-MTV entertainment. For sophisticated theater-goers, it's the anti-Sondheim evening. No thought required; no chromatic progressions.
Known principally as the hit that introduced a young Bernadette Peters to American musical theater audiences, "Dames" opened in late 1968 and ran into 1970. Co-writers of the book and lyrics, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, and composer Jim Wise created a deftly uncynical spoof-in-miniature of those mindless musicals of the '30s in which innocents from the heartland become Broadway stars just hours off the bus.
The young heroine (the role Peters originated) is Ruby, a wide-eyed tap-dancer from Utah with dreams of stardom. Meghan Touey, who has a pleasing bell-like soprano, plays her with an amusing blend of wide-eyed naivete and spunk. Ruby wanders into a Broadway theater where seasoned veteran (read aging diva, threatened by the ingenue) Mona Kent is rehearsing "Dames at Sea," a new show by Mr. Hennesey, the frazzled producer/director.
As Mona and Hennesey, the two characters who've been around the block a few times, Deborah Tranelli and Jack Kyrieleison provide the occasional edge and wit "Dames" needs. Tranelli's voice is a wonder. From smoky to brassy, she makes it look easy. As the bankrupt Broadway maven Hennesey and the clueless captain of a naval vessel in Act 2, Kyrieleison is a frenetic highlight of the show, but vocally he strains into screaming on the high notes for "The Beguine," his duet with Tranelli.
As soon as Ruby walks into the theater to audition she meets Dick, a sailor on leave from his ship, who follows her with the suitcase he saw her forget at the bus stop. He turns out to be -- naturally -- a brilliant songwriter, terrific singer, splendid dancer and the love of her life. They discover they're meant for each other in "It's You." Lanky, open-faced Sol Baird makes Dick an immensely likable, if rather adolescent-seeming, match for Ruby. And he exhibits tap-dancing skills not all the cast members share in equal measure.
Last, but definitely not least, Sherri L. Edelen and Brad Bradley lend cockeyed charm to the proceedings as seasoned chorus girl Joan and her sailor boyfriend Lucky. These two crack wise and sing up a storm in such numbers as "Choo-Choo Honeymoon" (a play on "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" -- all the songs are plays on "real" hits). Edelen can belt and she has great fun with "Good Times Are Here to Stay" at the close of Act 1.
Ruby's hired on as a replacement chorus girl, and Mona has Dick write her new numbers for the show. By Act 2, the "Dames" troupe has lost its theater to the wrecking ball and moved onto the deck of Dick and Lucky's destroyer in New York Harbor. Ruby thinks Dick's thrown her over for Mona, and sings "Raining in My Heart." But before even two hours have elapsed (including intermission), all resolves in harmony.
Ilona Kessell's pleasant but unambitious choreography seems to hint at the difficulties of dealing with a cast of uneven terpsichorean abilities, plus a smallish area provided by the set. James Fouchard's art deco proscenium for the Broadway stage in Act 1 and his illogically pink and gold Navy ship's deck in Act 2 (mostly a painted flat) are clever in design, but look penny-pinched in execution. Dean Brown's costumes, including pink-and-white Peter Pan-collared ensembles for Ruby, are workable but not fully in step with the show's spoofery. Musical director Christopher Youstra and Alfredo Pulupa sit at upright pianos on either side of the little stage's center thrust, and percussionist Vin Novaro is off to the audience's left. Their accompaniment is upbeat and clean.
In the past Olney Theatre Center has opened its season (which goes from late February through December) with a musical. Though an Equity house, they've deliberately mixed young, fresh-out-of-school actors with seasoned professionals in their season opener as a way of showcasing newcomers. Alas, that generosity resulted in shows often painfully lacking in polish (an unfortunate "Bye Bye Birdie" comes to mind). They've announced an end to that tradition. "Dames" is an all-pro show, and despite its occasional shortcomings, that pro patina shines through.
Dames At Sea, book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, music by Jim Wise. Directed by Dallett Norris. Lighting, Jonathan Blandin; sound, Tony Angelini. Approximately 1 hour 50 minutes. Through March 30 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400.