The Sierra Madre Playhouse is beloved for producing enjoyable plays gilded in the charm of a small-town vibe. But it originated as a movie theater for the bucolic burg of roughly 11,000 citizens — a town so small that it still has only one stoplight — and this summer its programmers are weaving together both aspects of its rich cultural history by presenting the old-school musical “Dames at Sea” as well as a series of classic movies that inspired the style of “Dames” on Wednesday nights.
“Dames” follows the story of Ruby, an actress who hits the stage as a chorus girl but might wind up a star, in a musical comedy that is also a hilarious homage to the glamorous and hopeful musicals of the 1930s. According to director Joshua Finkel, the combination is bringing a full slate of summer fun to the theater’s small but hallowed stage as it runs through July 21.
“It’s going really, really well,” says Finkel, who is making his Playhouse debut with the production “What drew us to the show is it’s small and works for the kind of space we have. Part of the creator’s message in the forward of the libretto says ‘think of this as Busby Berkeley but on a postage stamp.’ Part of the satire is to create the same effect of having thousands of people onstage with just six.
“It’s a tipping of the hat to movie musicals of the 1930s, and extremely American,” he continues. “Christian Lebano, the Playhouse’s artistic director, wants American theater by American playwrights and that’s his mission. It’s uniquely American, and what’s really cool is that they’re screening a movie series Wednesday nights of the movies ‘Dames’ is based on: ‘42nd Street,’ ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ and ‘Footlight Parade,’ plus ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’”
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” will screen at 8 p.m. July 3, while “Footlight Parade” follows at 8 p.m. July 10. “42nd Street” closes out the series at 8 p.m. July 17, with tickets to all three screenings available for $10 per movie.
Finkel notes that all those films had the same basic cast or filmmakers, with stars like Ruby Keeler, Guy Blondell and James Cagney playing archetypes in archetypal plots. “Dames” is a takeoff of that style, as it “takes the stakes to crazy ridiculous situations the entire show, over one crazy long day of opening a Broadway show at the Hippodrome in the 1930s.”
“The Works Progress Administration is moving in to demolish the theater because the producer couldn’t pay the bills after 12 flops in a row, so at the end of act one, the theater is demolished while they’re singing ‘Good Times are Here to Stay,’” laughs Finkel, who met Lebano when they were students in the theater program of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The second act is on a ship after they’ve moved the show there, which is ridiculous that they could move the locations and write a whole new score for it in just one day. This is truly screwball level comedy.”
“Dames at Sea” runs through July 21 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.