The big band impresario Dean Mora is discussing his latest theatrical endeavor Dames at Sea, opening at Colony Theatre in Burbank. He uses it as a springboard to talk about his role as the show’s musical director.
With book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller with music by Jim Wise, Dames at Sea was written in the 1960s, but it takes place in the early 1930s.Â “It’s a take-off on the early Busby Berkeley style of movie musicals,” Mora says, “complete with all the snappy patter and dialogue and references to personalities of the era.”
Ruby, the heroine of Dames at Sea, has come from Centerville, Utah to Broadway to make it big.Â She meets a sailor who’s also a budding songwriter and piano player, and he sings a few of his songs to her. They catch the attention of Mona Kent, the big star, and his songs get incorporated into the show within the show.
“By the end of the musical — which, by the way, miraculously takes place in one day — Ruby becomes the star of the big Broadway production number,” Mora adds. “It’s shades of Anything Goes because it takes place on a ship, and a little of 42nd Street.Â In fact, one of the lines Ruby’s friend Joan says to her is “˜you’re going out there a chorus girl and coming back a star’.”
In 1998, Mora performed in (but didn’t musically direct) a local production of Dames at Sea in which he played one of two pianos. “It was an interesting experience,” Mora says, “They decided to play the CD of the original cast album for the overture.” It was Mora’s job to turn around and turn off the CD player and then play the rest of the show live. “When Barbara (Beckley, artistic director of the Colony), mentioned they were going to do it, I thought we’ll do it right this time and maybe I’ll have closure.”
“The songs have very hummable melodies,” Mora continues, “and are very charming in their own way. There’s a beguine, some beautiful fox-trot ballads and some soft shoe numbers that evolve into fast tap breaks. That Mister Man of Mine sounds very much like George Gershwin’s The Man I Love. There’s Raining in My Heart, Choo-Choo Honeymoon.Â And Broadway Baby ““ it’s one of those medium foxtrot songs that builds into a show-stopping finale.”
The original 1966 production of Dames at Sea was done Off-Off-Broadway in the tiny Caffe Cino, with a cast of six, two pianos and one percussionist. It gave Bernadette Peters one of her earliest starring roles. In 1968, the show moved to Off-Broadway, then the West End in London, with larger orchestras.
“We’re sticking with the original Off-Off-Broadway orchestrations,” Mora says, “two pianos, and a percussionist on xylophone and vibraphone, who doubles on a drum kit.”Â Mora will play one of the pianos and lead the band for the duration of the show
The score, including sheet music for each orchestra piece, is leased from a rental company. It passes the royalties on to the publishers. Â These companies are sometimes, but not always, explicit about the arrangements remaining as originally written.Â “We try to keep faithful to what is provided,” Mora says, “The only recommendation for Dames At Sea was that we do either the smaller version or the larger version and not anything in between. You always have to work from the original sheet music provided, because it’s a copyright issue.Â If you make copies, you have to destroy them after the production.”
“It’s always interesting when I get a score from a rental company and it’s incomplete for a variety of reasons. Yet that company requires us to erase all our corrections and markings before we return it, so the next production to rent it has to do the same thing all over again.Â If you look in an orchestra pit during the very last show of a musical’s run, the musicians are spending most of their time erasing.”
The score comes with the musical keys indicated.Â “It wasn’t the case this time, but in the past we might have had to change a key because maybe one note wasn’t quite right.Â It’s easy to do with just three in the band, but if it was a 24-piece orchestra that would have been more difficult and costly.”
Harmonies are also indicated in the arrangements. “There are some instances where I would make a determination that, for example, three parts here would sound better than two. “
Mora was at all the auditions for the show. “This time I had the luxury of sitting behind the table while another pianist played, so I could concentrate on the singers.” Mora and Dames at Sea director Todd Nielsen have worked together on numerous productions at the Colony, Musical Theatre Guild and the children’s theater company Nine O’Clock Players.
At the final callback, the performers were teamed to hear how their voices blend, in addition to seeing how they look together.Â Acting and dance auditions had been held earlier. “Some who do very well at the earlier auditions don’t match up voice or appearance wise. Those are the tough decisions.”
The first week of rehearsal was devoted to the vocals:Â solos, duets, and chorale work. “There are a lot of oohs and ahhs behind the group songs.”
Then rehearsals are devoted to blocking and movement. “That’s when it’s easy for the cast to forget some of the music, especially the background vocals,” notes Mora.
“I’m enjoying the cast a lot, especially the younger performers who had not seen a lot of the vintage movies.” Nielsen gave them DVDs that had all the Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell movies to give them a feel for the period. “We now have a cast who’s really locked into that mindset. It’s going to turn out to be a fun show. The set is beautiful. I think audiences are really going to like it.”
Mora’s Modern Orchestras
Besides his busy career as a musical director, Mora is founder and leader of several musical entities. “I first started my band called Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, 11 pieces and a couple of vocalists, about 18 years ago. We specialize in dance music of the 1920s and 1930s.Â I formed a smaller group called Mora’s Modern Swingtet, with six players and one vocalist. Dean Mora and His Orchestra have had 20 musicians at certain events.Â The orchestra plays a Glenn Miller repertoire and sometimes a 1960s swing big band sound; Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle.”
One of his regular vocalists, Damon Kirsche, joined Mora’s bands around 10 years ago. “We were hired separately for an industrial video for Disney. It was big band nightclub setting.Â They hired my band and Damon was hired as one of the vocalists. During one of the breaks we got to talking and he said he would love to sing with us. He’s been with us ever since” ““ and has also become a regular in LA musicals, although he’s not in Dames at Sea.
Mora sometimes subs out his bands while he works as a musical director.Â Right now,Â he’s devoting all his time to Dames at Sea, so his bands are on hiatus until May.
The bands have played at most of the historical venues around town: the Palladium, Roosevelt Hotel, Casino ballroom in Avalon, the Orpheum, Los Angeles, Palace and Wiltern theaters. They play regularly at the Cicada Club, downtown,Â on Sunday nights when the restaurant transforms into a 1930s/1940s supper club.
“We wear vintage tuxes. A lot of our audiences wear period dress. Some are part of the Art Deco Society, some are costume designers. They really jump into the vintage lifestyle.”
Mora studied to be a concert pianist, but he was bitten by the theater bug.Â He has always been an American history buff.Â At one time he had a Civil War band with custom made horns accurate to the period. His affection for the music of the 1920s and 1930s started early.
“When I was 11 or 12 years old I saw the movie The Sting. Â I fell in love with the era, the clothes, everything. Â And, of course, the ragtime music. I played ragtime for a number of years and I joined a ragtime orchestra in college. Then someone suggested I put together a 1920s band and I thought that kind of makes sense.Â That’s when I formed my band, back in “˜94 and it’s kind of gone from “˜20s to “˜30s to “˜60s. Had I not seen The Sting, who knows?”
Dames at Sea, presented by Colony Theatre Company. Opens April 14. Plays Thur- Fri 8 pm; Sat at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm.Â Through May 13. Colony Theatre, 555 North Third St., Burbank 91502. 818-558-7000 ext. 15. www.colonytheatre.org.
***All Dames at Sea production photos by Michael Lamont
*** All Dean Mora related photos taken by Rick Bernstein