‘Dames at Sea’ offers dazzling footwork, laughter

The cast of “Dames at Sea.” Photo Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

STONEHAM – Aside from the New England Patriots, director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins and actress Ephie Aardema just might be the best team around.

They teamed up for three award-winning productions at the former Stoneham Theatre, now newly rebranded as the Greater Boston Stage Company.

Their first production together for the new GBSC is the musical “Dames at Sea,” an enjoyable romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously– at least not until it comes time to sing or tap-dance up a storm.

“Dames at Sea” is loosely based on the “Gold Diggers” musicals. It’s a takeoff on those huge, splashy 1930s shows meant to lift theater-goers out of the doldrums and despair of the Depression.

Michael Seltzer, Ephie Aardema, Taavon Gamble and Sara Coombs in “Dames at Sea.” Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Of course in this instance, it’s being dome with a six-member cast fronting two pianos and a clever, if smaller-scale set.

It is a slight piece – the book by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller is a clothes hanger upon which the songs and dances can be hung — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had as an energetic, talented cast are all on their games and all able to hold their own in Robbins’ tap-happy dance numbers.

In the 1930s, a divaish, temperamental star named Mona Kent (Shana Dirik) is set to headline a new musical called “Dames at Sea,” along with chorus girl Joan (Sara Coombs), directed by the beleaguered Hennesey (Russell Garrett).

A hungry, naive young girl named Ruby (Aardema) from Utah shows up in at the theater looking for a spot in the show with “nothing but tap shoes in her suitcase and a prayer in her heart.” It runs out she doesn’t even have her suitcase, which is rescued by a sailor named Dick (Taavon Gamble), who shows up at the theater where the rehearsals are underway.

Happily, he is an aspiring songwriter and both he – and his songs – attract the attention of both Ruby and the man-devouring Mona, a role Dirik was born to play. She picks up the ball and runs with it, and she is hardly left behind when the dancing starts.

Lucky (Michael Seltzer), another sailor and Joan’s former boyfriend, shows up and the two revisit their relationship.

When a wrecking ball starts taking down the theater, Dick and Lucky are able to persuade their captain (Garrett again) to allow them to stage the show on the ship docked in New York Harbor.

The captain and Mona – another happy coincidence – turn out to be former lovers. The veteran scene-stealers Garrett and Dirik team up for hilarious “The Buguine”and show the youngsters how it’s done.

But when Mona is sidelined by seasickness just before the show, will Ruby get her big chance to become s star? Can she keep Dick out of Mona’s clutches?

If it all sounds vaguely familiar with another tap-happy show that Aardema and Robbins teamed up for – “42nd Street” – well, the resemblance is more than coincidental, although “Dames” got there first in 1966, well before “42nd Street” in 1980.

Coombs as Joan was a part of Stoneham ‘s productions of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “42nd Street” and the tall, leggy actress is equally at home with Aardema when she taps, and Gamble and Seltzer are also happily equal to the task when paired with Aardema and Coombs in the dance numbers.

This is a show right in the wheelhouse of director/choreographer Robbins, who demands a lot from every member of the cast and, fortunately, gets it

Scenic designer Eric Levenson joins in the fun with a couple of low-tech sets that also gently lampoon the lavish Busby Berkeley shows, and Music Director Stephen Ladd Jones and Bethany Aiken’s dueling pianos feed off the energy of the cast and make the score, with lyrics by Haimsohn and Miller and music by Jim Wise, the best it can be.

So climb on board, stuff your cares and worries in the cargo hold, and get set to laugh and be dazzled by the footwork.

The Greater Boston Stage Company production of “Dames At Sea.” Book and Lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller. Music by Jim Wise. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Music Direction, Steven Ladd Jones; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Emily Taradash. Lighting Design, Chris Fournier. Sound design, John Stone. Through Sept. 24.  greaterbostonstage.org.

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