From left, Darien Crago (as Joan), Cody Davis (as Lucky), Erick… (Photo by Nancy Anderson…)
Infinity Theatre's second show of the summer season, the tap-happy, Navy-crazy "Dames at Sea," opened last weekend to the enthusiastic applause of near-capacity audiences.
Infinity's co-producing artistic directors Anna and Alan Ostroff have a winning combination here, with a nautical theme suiting Annapolis as well as a 1960s show celebrating escapist 1930s film musicals. Now we can get away from the heat, drought and other downers while celebrating two genuine American art forms: precision tap-dancing and Broadway musicals.
Infinity's production of "Dames at Sea" is perfected by Broadway director-choreographer Randy Skinner, who honed his art working with Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse and famed "42nd Street" director Gower Champion. Skinner expertly choreographs six fabulous dancers to deliver the thundering power of tap to CTA's stage.
In this naval town, mixing the military precision of tap with skilled accompaniment by musicians with strong Navy connections seems appropriate. The fine pit orchestra is conducted by Mike Pettry, whose musicians include retired Navy commanders Raymond Ascione on reeds and Don Keller Jr. on trumpet; bassist Tom Pitts of the U.S. Naval AcademyBand; percussionist Marty Knepp of AACC Jazz Ensemble; and pianist Jan Abbott of Stevensville, who has family Navy connections.
Set in the early 1930s, "Dames at Sea" was originally produced off-Broadway in 1966 and moved to Broadway in 1968 — both productions featuring then-newcomer Bernadette Peters. It follows the plot outline of "42nd Street," in which the leading lady becomes ill and an ingenue takes over to save the show. Characters Ruby, Dick and Joan are based on 1930s musical film stars Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell.
Ruby arrives in New York City from Utah and finds a job dancing in the chorus of a show to open that night. Fellow hoofer Joan is onto pretentious, demanding leading lady Mona Kent. Dick is a dancing sailor who is also a skilled songwriter.
Mona has her eye on Dick, but he has eyes only for Ruby. He and shipmate friend Lucky, who is Joan's boyfriend, decide to move the show to their ship after the theater is closed down before opening night.
This loving parody is loaded with nostalgia in its tuneful score, evocative of early hit musicals, and cliche-loaded dialogue that will amuse audience members who recognize it and lend appeal to younger people enjoying their first Broadway classic. It's virtually guaranteed that everyone will respond to the fantastically rapid tapping in big numbers like "Wall Street," "Choo Choo Honeymoon," and "Star Tar."
This "Dames" cast of six, all making their Infinity Theatre debuts, is phenomenal. After a terrific overture by Infinity's pit orchestra, the show begins onstage with a comically haughty Mona in a strong solo number by Kristie Kerwin, who has an impressive list of Broadway credits. Kerwin immediately establishes her triple talents as singer, dancer and comedian in "Wall Street."
The next tune, the corn-nostalgia mix "It's You," lightheartedly establishes the mutual appeal of ingenue Ruby (Megan Kelley) and songwriter/sailor Dick (Eric Huffman).
Projecting a disarming, fresh innocence as Ruby, Kelley may be life imitating art here in displaying her talent. Kelley has appealing vocal delivery and offers sensational tap dancing, showing her inexhaustible energy to scale new dancing heights. The ensemble brings all the combined visual and auditory appeal that defines tap-dancing at its best.
As Dick, Actors' Equity member Huffman reveals Broadway leading-man singing talents, lends a naive, sincere appeal to his character, and proves eminently capable of holding his own with the phenomenal dancers in the demanding big tap numbers.
As sidekick Lucky, Cody Davis, another Actors' Equity member, has abundant charm and charisma along with sufficient skills to serve as the company's dance captain.
In his stage partner — sharp, savvy Joan, played by Darien Crago — we find another accomplished dancer who started tap lessons at age 6 and has clearly mastered the stylish elegance taught by Skinner.
In dual roles of stage manager Hennesy and captain of the ship, Erick Buckley displays his formidable talents honed in a professional career that has included playing both Marius and Jean Valjean in Broadway's "Les Miserables." Here, Buckley delivers a beguiling "Beguine" with Kerwin's Mona, displaying his near-operatic vocal talents along with formidable acting skills, and he holds his own tapping.
Credit is also due costume designer Jessa-Raye Court, lighting designers Anshu Bhatia and James E. Lawlor, and set designer Wes Shippee.
"Dames at Sea" runs Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 5. Tickets can be ordered online at InfinityTheatreCompany.com or by calling 877-501-8499.