REVIEW: Dames at Sea – Original London Cast Recording

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damesDames at Sea is the quintessential “little show that could,” growing from a sketch to a nightclub show to a proper off-Broadway musical to an international hit that’s spawned multiple cast recordings, a television production, rumors of a forthcoming Broadway revival, and, oh, it helped launch the career of an ingenue by the name of Bernadette Peters. Originally performed with two pianos and percussion, the original off-Broadway cast recording featured sumptuous new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.

Ironically, the presence of those gorgeous charts and the unmistakable Peters are two of the best arguments for adding the London Cast Recording to your collection. The London production, which opened a year after its off-Broadway progenitor, features no such breakout performance, enabling the entire ensemble to shine. (Sheila White, who plays the part originated by Peters, does a fine job, but her biggest credit was Brigitta in The Sound of Music.) The London cast recording doesn’t return to the show’s two-pianos-plus-drums orchestrations, but the new charts by Bill Shepherd are closer to the “let’s put on a show” aesthetic of the show.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s a tuneful evocation of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s (and 42nd Street in particular), teetering right on the line between pastiche and parody. If the off-Broadway recording steps a little too close to pastiche, risking becoming the very thing it’s parodying, the London recording sits distinctly on the opposite side of the line. This means that the voices – particularly Joyce Blair as Mona and William Ellis as Lucky – tend toward broad “schmacting” that sometimes hovers around the notes of the song without ever quite hitting them. But Blayne Barrington is a charming leading man as Dick, and Sheila White is entirely winning as Ruby without subjecting us to the vocal tics that Bernadette Peters’s fans adore and detractors hate.

As for the score itself, it’s full of charming, hummable songs, although their pastiche nature means you are as likely to leave the album humming “We’re in the Money,” “The Shadow Waltz,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and all the other antecedent songs as you are to remember “Wall Street,” “The Echo Waltz,” or “Choo-Choo Honeymoon.” Still, there’s a reason why Bernadette Peters has kept the torch song “Raining In My Heart” in her concert repertoire for all these years, and the only real clunker in the lot is the uncomfortably dated (even as parody) “Singapore Sue.” While hardly an essential purchase, this recording is a lot of fun, and if the songs don’t stay with me for long after the album spins to a close, I certainly enjoy hearing them when they play.

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