The Hank stages swell ‘Dames’
The Merely Players light up Henry Strater stage

Cast members of “Dames at Sea” strike a pose during a dress rehearsal last Friday afternoon at the Henry Strater Theatre. The Merely Players, a local production group, will stage the musical comedy all summer long./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Stew Mosberg

Right out of the box, the opening of “Dames at Sea” suggests that the audience is in for a real treat. A cleverly staged “Busby Berkeley meets Esther Williams” spoof puts the crowd in a gleeful mood that continues all the way through to the final curtain.

The original performance of the musical opened in May of 1966 in a tiny performance space in New York City. The play eventually moved to Broadway and then on to London, and later a television adaptation.

The storyline for “Dames” is a take-off on the Gold Digger films of the 1930s, where a small-town girl with dreams of stardom goes through the trials and tribulations of love, competition and success; all in one day. If you remember the snappy, wisecracking dialogue, the sappy, often cornball song and dance numbers, the tapping feet, and the innuendos of those old films or if you watch them now on late-night television, it can make you wistful for a simpler, more innocent time. Yet, it isn’t necessary to take a trip down memory lane to enjoy this show. The opening night audience at The Hank included youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between, and everybody laughed in the right places, although the references to entertainers of bygone days might have been lost on anyone under 60.

This staging and production of “Dames” was pulled together by Merely Players, who produced last year’s “Forever Plaid,” and includes three of the male performers from that show.

Mona Wood-Patterson, director of Merely Players and longtime drama department head at Durango High School, says she loves using graduates from DHS. “Working with actors I know makes auditioning so much easier when you already know their capabilities and personalities,” she said. “You can calm down and get to work.

Durango High School, says she loves using graduates from DHS. “Working with actors I know makes auditioning so much easier when you already know their capabilities and personalities,” she said. “You can calm down and get to work.”

Temperamental and difficult actors are legend in the theater, so avoiding confrontation and delay when there are only two or three weeks to rehearse is essential, and “it’s a sweet blessing to have home-grown talent that is the cream of the crop,” according to Wood-Patterson.

The “Dames at Sea” cast proves that they are indeed, top-tier entertainers. Whether singing, dancing, delivering over-the-top cliché punch lines, or fawning over one another in love ballads, they bring Broadway fun to Durango’s Main Avenue. Their wide-eyed, youthful energy is infectious.

The two-act musical has 17 songs, with solos, duets and a chorus of the six cast members belting out their numbers with verve, and in the case of Leah Nikula, with power and stage presence. Nikula vamps, stomps, postures and plays the part of stage diva Mona Kent to the hilt, and captivates whenever she takes to the boards.

The Mona Kent character is the nemesis of the ingénue Ruby, who is the heroine of the show within a show. Jessica Jane Hagemeister gives a charming, delightfully sweet performance as Ruby, and while her voice is not as powerful, nor does she have the vocal range of Nikula, she is a pleasure to watch and is well cast.

The Merely Players ham it up during last Friday’s dress rehearsal at the Hank. “Dames”follows on the heels of last year’s acclaimed production of “Forever Plaid” and runs nightly, except Mondays, through Aug. 15. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

The early Gold Digger scripts usually included a brassy, loveable gal, the Eve Arden type for those of you who remember, with a quick, sarcastic wit and a lot of talent, along with a sentimental heart. In “Dames at Sea,” that character is Joan, played here by Elizabeth Gray, and the actress keeps everyone together as the big sister while holding her own on stage against any of the cast members.

With just six actors, an amazing 58 costumes designed by JoAnn Nevils, a small stage, and two set changes, the challenges faced by the director and Charles Ford, her set designer/tech director husband, were daunting.

Director of Choreography Denise Hagemeister achieves a big-stage feel within the diminutive space, and dance numbers with the whole cast are tightly woven and intricate without feeling cramped.

Plus the clever use of props, such as umbrellas and mops, provides an amusing enhancement to the routines.

Austin Hohnke has the task of playing a dual role, and although he has no dancing to contend with in either part, he is more convincing in the second act when he portrays the ship Captain.

Adam Fontana as the young sailor Dick, Ruby’s love interest, creates an endearing partner for her while remaining clueless to Mona Kent’s advances and true intentions. Dick’s sea-faring buddy, Lucky, is played by Landon Newton; a slightly better dancer than Fontana, who possesses the appeal of the real 1940s music and dance man, Donald O’Connor.

Pianist Helen Gregory with percussionists Mark Rosenberg and Steve Nogarede manage to make a Wurlitzer and drums sound like a full orchestra while incorporating sound effects along the way, never missing a beat or a cue.

“Dames at Sea” is an excellent choice for The Hank for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it can be performed in the limited space. When choosing plays, such as “Dames” or last year’s “Forever Plaid,” every nuance needs to be considered. Sophie Parrott, theater manager at The Hank, said she and Mona Wood-Patterson had many meetings on the topic. “We do lots of reading of scripts, and try to find a play that fits the theater’s capabilities and can be staged with a small cast,” she said.

In an inspired bit of promotion, Parrott hired formerly local graphic artist Dorn Roberts to create the sexy, pin-up advertisement and then enticed Ska Brewing into a promo arrangement by incorporating the graphics onto a collector’s edition label for their True Blond Ale. Bring six labels to the box office and get 10 percent off the ticket price. And while you are in the lobby, check out the seaside memorabilia. If it looks familiar, it’s because it used to adorn the walls of the “Pelican’s Nest” bar, which used to be across the street from the Strater.

As might be expected, it takes many talented people to put on a play, and this production is no different; everyone did a superb and professional job. “Dames at Sea” may well be a local production, with home-grown talent, on a limited budget and pocket-sized stage, but its entertainment value is as big as Broadway itself. •



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