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Parodies must strike a balance between imitation and mockery. When done right, that creates something funny, endearing and special — not quite the thing it's parodying but not altogether distinct either.

“Dames at Sea,” at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center by the Mississippi Bend Players, strikes that balance with flair. An ostensible parody of Broadway’s Golden Age, when musicals were melodramatic in tone and over-the-top in production, “Dames at Sea” lampoons old shows while also conveying fondness for them. It's a musical that either laughs at or laughs with classic Broadway, and sometimes both at once.

The show’s beating heart is its heroine, Ruby (played by a terrific, promising Anna Marie Myatt). An archetypal country bumpkin, Ruby is fresh off the bus from small-town Utah. She arrives in New York with only her tap shoes and girlish dreams of stardom.

Luckily, she lands in the good graces of Joan (Mind Panyanuch-Pornsakulpaisal), a member of a new Broadway musical in rehearsal. Ruby auditions spontaneously and makes the cut.

She then heedlessly falls in love with a sailor, Dick (Lucas Thompson), a budding songwriter and equal romantic. The two make a merry pair, until the biggest name in the industry, Mona Kent (Christina Myatt), takes a liking to Dick and insists he partner with her — professionally, and perhaps romantically. That Christina Myatt is Anna's mother makes their tug-of-war over the young sailor all the more absurd.

The major conflict of the show is that the theater is slated to be demolished before opening night. So the production company, led by Hennesy (Noah Hill), needs to find a new venue. Using Mona Kent’s charms, the sailors woo their captain (Doug Kutzli) and secure the musical a stage, their deck of their vessel. “Dames at Sea,” the musical-within-the-musical, is born.

The show ambles with a tongue-in-cheek cuteness that will endear you to its silliness. For instance, it opens with a number, “Wall Street,” that parodies what show business is all about: money. A later song, “Choo-Choo Honeymoon,” relies on evocative wordplay to talk about a lascivious honeymoon aboard a train.

The highlight comes at the end, when Anna burns down the house with an electrifying "Star Tar," a culmination of plot and musical prowess. Anna Marie Myatt, who is entering her senior year in high school, can relate to the song's lyrics in which Ruby proclaims herself to be a bona fide sensation.

To lambaste the past with today's standards would quickly, and perhaps unfairly, condemn much of our history to the ash heaps. “Dames at Sea," which was written in the mid-'60s, mostly jettisons many of the cringier conventions of Broadway past. Ruby, the unabashed heroine, in the end triumphs spectacularly as a female sailor in a man’s world.

But one song in particular — “Singapore Sue,” a sort of Orientalist dream sequence written by Dick — will inevitably make you wince for its overt reliance on Chinese stereotypes. (An elderly white man next to me exclaimed “oh goodness.”)

Perhaps the song is meant to parody Dick’s weak songwriting. Either way, the parody here loses its balance and stumbles into less-than-funny stereotypes. A shame, as the number highlights talents of the eminently skillful Rami Halabi, playing the sailor Lucky, whose comedic timing steals your attention whenever he appears.

Performances continue 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call 309-794-7306 or visit MississippiBendPlayers.com.

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