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'Dames at Sea' review: One-joke show sinks, 47 years later

"Dames at Sea" has arrived on Broadway 47 years after its Off-Broadway premiere introduced a dynamite kewpie doll named Bernadette Peters to a grateful world. The show, a vest-pocket spoof of '30s Busby Berkeley spectaculars, was meant from the start to be a nonstop show-biz cliche with songs intended to sound like songs everyone already knew from old Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell movies.

So the current big-time revival does what its late creators -- composer Jim Wise, author/lyricists George Haimsohn and Robin Miller -- apparently wanted their modest takeoff to accomplish. The production, directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner, has a hard-tapping, hardworking cast of six and enough varieties of I-love-to-dance smiles to become their own emoticons.

What the musical does not have -- in addition to a breakout ingénue to elevate the unrelentingly, cheerfully lame nonsense -- is charm.

This is, to put it gently, a one-joke show. And we get the joke -- we get it, we get it -- over and over the tap-happy two hours.

A starry-eyed girl from Utah gets off the bus with her red tap shoes and, within minutes, has a raunchy new best friend (Mara Davi), a sailor boyfriend and a job in the chorus of a Broadway show on opening night. Of course, a bulldozer is wrecking the theater, which means the show's diva persuades a smitten Navy captain (John Bolton, who doubles less frantically as the director) to let them open on his battleship. The star gets sick, again of course, and our girl, named Ruby, goes "out on the poop deck a chorus girl" but is sure to be "coming back a star!!!!!"

Eloise Kropp has the unenviable double-challenge of competing with the Peters legend while delivering lines about the thrill of being on Broadway. The actress has dance technique as deep as her dimples, which are considerable, and a likable restraint in not joining the mugfest around her.

Meanwhile, Lesli Margherita, as the aging dragon-lady star, hits every double-take as if auditioning for a parody of "Sunset Boulevard." Cary Tedder, as Ruby's Dick, can do a handstand while clapping his heels together. Skinner, who assisted Gower Champion on the original 1980 "42nd Street" and choreographed the 2001 revival, is a virtuoso tap master. The dancing is fast and even faster, impressively eating up space on the small but versatile stage (designed by Anna Louizos).

The show begins and ends as if we're seeing an old movie musical, as if the whole thing were not already stuck between ironic quotation marks. We get it, really, we do.

WHERE Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St.

INFO $65-$152.50; 212-239-6200;


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