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'Dames' tries way too hard to be cute

Dames at Sea is a frothy little spoof of 1930s Ruby Keeler-Dick Powell movie musicals. But froth can be deceptively difficult to stage.

The least bit of strain or over-exertion can deflate it, which is what happens in director Charlie Smith's production at Theatre on the Hill. The corn is too self-conscious (when a sailor gets his foot stuck in a bucket, we see him jam it in deliberately, instead of inadvertently) and the slapstick is too forced (an actor playing a character with a stubbed toe milks his limp mercilessly).

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Parodying a bevy of show-biz cliches, the six-person show (music by Jim Wise, book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller) tells the story of a new musical - called Dames at Sea - that finds itself without a theater on opening night and winds up appearing on the deck of a battleship. The washed-up director needs to prove himself with a hit; the star becomes sidelined and is replaced by a just-off-the-bus chorus girl who miraculously knows the part; and the cast ends up neatly paired off into three romantic couples.

Done right, this show should be so cute, you'd want to pinch its cheeks. And Theatre on the Hill's production does have cute moments. Indeed, Jessica Elizabeth Hering's Ruby and Phillip Olarte's Dick meet so cutely, lighting designer Barbara Tighe punctuates the moment with a bright white spotlight. Later, they lean toward each other with the magnetic pull of a pair of kissing dolls.

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There are other nice touches as well - some slick moves with a gliding ladder near the end of the first act and some neatly choreographed mop-tossing in the title number. As Ruby's friend, Joan, Jennifer Andersen has a strong voice and the show's best period look. And as Ruby, perky Hering, bewigged in blond curls, looks and acts as adorable as a kewpie doll. However, Dallas D. Munger, who plays two roles, proves to be a Jekyll and Hyde; he's hopelessly hammy as the director of the show-within-the-show, but displays a smooth singing voice and demeanor to match as the captain of the battleship.

The score offers amusing send-ups of everything from Cole Porter to Harry Warren. But in the end, the production feels as if it's trying too hard - from the driven tap dancing to the over-eager physical comedy. It's possible, of course, that things will lighten up later in the run; but right now, Theatre on the Hill's Dames at Sea never really sets sail.

Theatre on the Hill performs in McDaniel College's Alumni Hall, 2 College Hill, Westminster. Show times are 8 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Aug. 7-9. Tickets are $15 and $20. Call 410-857-2448.

'Missing Phil'

Dementia is a debilitating condition that not only takes its toll on the person incapacitated (who may lose awareness of his or her condition), but also tests the mettle of family and friends.

In PS Lorio's Missing Phil, a grown daughter named Missy is put to that test, and for most of this overly long, overstated drama, she fails miserably. Initially in denial about her father's waning mental capacities, Pamela Feldman's Missy is impatient, unsympathetic and often downright shrewish. Feldman starts out at such a feverish, fed-up pitch, she appears to have nowhere to go when the going truly gets tough.

And it does get tough, albeit at a snail's pace and interspersed with seemingly interminable scene changes, under Mike Moran's direction. A veteran Baltimore Playwrights Festival writer, Lorio is the co-author of another 2003 festival entry, Ten Reasons Big Betty is Stuck on the Side of the Road in a Little Pink Dress. But unlike that bright, concise effort, Missing Phil, produced by the Vagabond Players, leaves little to the imagination as it chronicles the title character's two-year descent and his daughter's too-little, too-late conversion from heartlessness to empathy.

Not only do you sense each crisis long before it happens, but even Lorio's use of metaphors - particularly one about not letting a mouse suffer - is obvious and repetitive. Consciousness-robbing conditions like dementia, stroke and Alzheimer's have built-in surreal qualities that can make eerily effective dramas, as has been demonstrated in plays ranging from Arthur Kopit's Wings and David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Mears to an especially memorable 1993 Playwrights Festival production called Quackenbush, by Joe Dennison.

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But Lorio has chosen a much more literal and less dramatically satisfying style. Branch Warfield capably portrays Phil's disintegrating condition, and Sherrionne Brown brings understanding to the nearly thankless role of Missy's lover. But the combination of Feldman's performance and Lorio's heavy-handed script make Missing Phil an almost complete miss.

Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 10. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 410-563-9135.

Unmentionable Theatre

Make way for Baltimore's newest theater company. The Unmentionable Theatre makes its official debut tonight with a production of Yasmina Reza's Art, staged, appropriately enough, at an art gallery, Angelfall Studios in Remington.

Founded by seven recent grads and current students from the University of Maryland Baltimore County's theater department, the company tested the waters in September with a production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, but Art will be its first effort to bear the "Unmentionable" moniker.

According to Benjamin Pohlmeier, who is directing Art, the company was created in part to counteract the difficulty young actors face in getting "challenging roles in the business right away" and also to attract audiences "our generation and younger [who] have lost touch with what theater can do and what theater is."

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Pohlmeier said the troupe hopes to begin outreach programs in area schools, aimed at teaching students to use theater to deal with social issues. And Unmentionable already has another public production lined up: Athol Fugard's Master Harold ... and the boys will be performed at the UMBC theater Aug. 27-31.

Show times for Art at Angelfall Studios, 2996 Remington Ave., are 9 tonight; 8 p.m. Aug. 1 and Aug. 7-9; and 5 p.m. Aug. 3 and Aug. 10. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 410-242-8856.


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