YOU KNOW the story: A plucky girl, straight off the bus in the Big City, lands a part in the Big Show just by being in the right place at the right time. That basic premise spawned countless backstage musicals in the 1930s and is given a lovingly satirical twist in "Dames at Sea," the 1968 off-Broadway hit now at Olney Theatre Center.

Of course, that kind of stuff never happens in real life.

Unless you're Sherri Edelen, that is. In "Dames," the Helen Hayes Award winner plays Joan, the seen-it-all veteran chorine. But her own story sounds more like that of Ruby (Meghan Touey), the small-town naif who gets the Big Break. "Everything's fallen into my lap!" Edelen exclaims.

Growing up in Nashville, Edelen did the usual school plays but never imagined she could build a career in theater. "I was so clueless, I'm telling you. I went to Catholic school for 12 years and never knew there was a Catholic University of America," she says. "I had one day with an advisor to talk about, 'Well, what do you want to do for the rest of your life?' I said, 'I don't know. I'm really good in English; maybe I'll teach English.' She goes, 'Okay, here's the school for that.' And I applied and I got in [to Middle Tennessee State]."

Edelen says she arrived at Middle Tennessee State not even knowing what a major was. Nevertheless, she soon changed hers from English to theater. "I would go over to the theater department and see a show and say, 'I wanna do that!' " Edelen recalls. Then came graduation day and, armed with her theater degree . . . she took an office job. "That's what you do," she says, citing the values instilled by her father, a child of the Great Depression. "You support yourself."

Her 9-to-5 life notwithstanding, Edelen's heart never strayed far from the stage: "I was doing plays and musicals in community theater and working at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center as an usher so I could see all those shows for free." It was a couple of years later that Edelen found an ad for auditions at the Opryland theme park. She auditioned, got the gig and quit her day job on the spot.

After a season singing and dancing in one of the park's musical revues, Edelen was tapped to perform at Opryland's ill-fated Fish Market venture in Baltimore. She made the move but saw the writing on the wall within months. Edelen started scouring the audition notices in Backstage Magazine for more reliable employment, landing a contract at Toby's Dinner Theater. In doing so, Edelen may have unwittingly gotten herself pigeonholed as a musical theater performer. It would be nearly a decade before her first major dramatic role, in last year's "The Swan" at Rep Stage. "I wanted to do straight plays but I just kind of went with the flow," Edelen says. "Work is work. I love it all, though."

With her career now firmly established, Edelen marvels at just how far going with the flow has carried her. "Sometimes I can't believe I'm living this life," she says. "I don't know, I just work and work and see what comes. I think I've been pretty fortunate. Very blessed."

Lucky (Brad Bradley) cuts a rug with Joan (Sherri Edelen) in "Dames at Sea."