Steve Dawson didn't know too much about "Dames at Sea" when he signed on to direct the latest Manatee Players production.
The show has been around for nearly 50 years, but it has no hit songs and it doesn't get produced often. Even a lot of people who follow theater closely have never seen it.
"I've run into a few people who knew and they all liked it," Dawson said. "I was just like everybody else who didn't really know it."
But Manatee Players producing artistic director Rick Kerby knew the play and liked it.
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"Rick believed in it," Dawson said, "and I'm glad he did."
After getting to know the musical through the rehearsal process, Dawson has become a fan.
The 1968 musical comes from George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, with music by Jim Wise. Those aren't exactly household names in the theater world. But it's the show that first brought Bernadette Peters to the attention of the theater-goers and theater critics. And a well-known 1971 television version starred Ann-Margaret, Ann Miller, Anne Meara, Fred Gwynne and Dick Shawn.
So it's always been the kind of show that can attract stars who can afford to be choosy about which show they do.
Dawson allows that it's an unusual show, though.
"I hope people get it," he said. "I think that if people think it's going to be a straight musical like '42nd Street' they're not going to know what to make of it. But it goes a little beyond that."
"Dames at Sea" pokes affectionate fun at such shows as "42nd Street" and at such movie musicals as the "Gold Diggers" series from the 1930s.
The story starts with the now-hackneyed plot of so many shows of the 1930s and '40s: A cast of professionals is rehearsing for a big show, a small-town girl with little experience but big dreams shows up, the leading man falls for her and she steps into the lead role when the star gets sick on opening night.
The lead characters are named Ruby and Dick, in clear references to Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell who played the corresponding roles in the film version of "42nd Street."
Nick Drivas, an actor who has been a Manatee Players regular since he was a child, plays Lucky, one of the sailors on the ship where the show-within-the-show is to be staged.
" 'Dames at Sea' is just a fun, lively musical," he said. "It's very funny, very song-heavy, very tap-heavy. And it's also a love story."
Even though it's a twist on the lavish '30s musicals, which most people know from movies with dances created by Busby Berkeley, "Dames at Sea" has only six actors. Some productions have added extras to make the dance numbers bigger, but Dawson chose to keep the cast small.
"We use some projections for effects," he said. "We're not just spoofing the musical, we're spoofing the movies."
Details: Sept. 11-28, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.