Written for Ethel Merman, Panama Hattie was the first show for which her name was advertised above the title. The musical opened in 1940 playing 501 performances, in those days a certified smash. It was Porter’s 20th outing on The Great White Way.
I never saw Ethel Merman live, but for my money, Klea Blackhurst could’ve successfully stepped into any one of her later roles. The performer morphs into brash, often strident, warm-hearted characters as if slipping on a good coat. She’s quick, clever, and notably shares the joke without dropping a stitch or losing in-context credibility.
Hattie Maloney (Klea Blackhurst) has been for three years the headline vocalist at a Panama City dive called The Tropical Shore. She’s well known and well liked, especially by carefree, testosterone-driven sailors from a local Naval Base: Woozy (Jay Aubrey Jones), Windy (Garen McRoberts), Skat (Joe Veale – swell tenor). “Join the Navy and get the gravy (girls),” they ably sing.
The heroine is engaged to divorced, former Naval officer Nick Bullett (Stephen Bogardus) who works for the canal. Despite coming from Main Line Philadelphia, Nick is no snob. He sees past Hattie’s lack of education and breeding. This infuriates Leila Tree, the admiral’s obnoxious, scheming daughter who’s set her cap for him. Leila undermines and eventually tricks Hattie into public embarrassment. (Casey Schuler, a bit over the top.)
When Nick’s eight year-old daughter Geraldine (Kylie Kuioka) arrives with her ersatz nanny/family butler “Storky,” Vivian Budd (Simon Jones) – the kind of Englishman who explains the presence of his umbrella by the fact it was raining when he was last home – in 1926. Florrie (Anita Welch) is dazzled by classy reserve and aggressively pursues him throughout the show.
Fearful she won’t pass muster with Gerry, Hattie dresses to the nines (ouch), only to evoke unbridled laughter from the otherwise beautifully mannered little girl. Assuming the worst, she turns with a vengeance to alcohol and gets roaring drunk. Blackhurst is terrific – amusing, empathetic, real. Nick tries to repair the situation, but it’s she who manages the task. “Let’s Be Buddies” is enchanting. Now Hattie has to impress Nick’s boss.
In addition to the primary and secondary love stories, German terrorists are thwarted from blowing up the canal by a suddenly sneaker-wearing Hattie, running in exaggerated slow motion to jettison explosives. (Wonderfully staged.) Everything wraps up nicely, of course.
Jokes elicit both ba-dump-dump winces and easy laughter. Simplistic songs like “My Mother Would Love You” precede sophisticated, signature material such as “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight.” Despite unevenness, this is an entertaining ride. Voices are uniformly good. The production is fluid and fun. Here’s an anecdote to dark, often political theater currently elsewhere in New York.
Director Michael Montel keeps proceedings light, lively and visually winning. Comings and goings are timed for humor. Relationships read well. Trent Kidd’s minimal choreography adds buoyancy.
The musical turns on the axis of Klea Blackhurst as it did Ethel Merman. Panama Hattie is a showcase. If you liked her, you’ll love her. If she’s new to you, buckle-up.
Stephen Bogardus makes a sympathetic, straight arrow Nick. It’s nice to see him onstage again. The same can be said for Simon Jones whose wry Storky is pitch perfect.
Anita Welch (Florrie) stands out even in a bright musical. The appealing thespian sings, moves, and acts well.
Kylie Kuioka (Geraldine) is a find. Amazingly off-book (scripts are traditionally carried in Mufti because of extremely short rehearsal time), she has a lovely, unusually mature singing voice, excellent stage timing, and expressiveness perfectly suited to the role. The actress is adorable without being cloying. A performer to watch.
Photos by Russ Rowland
Opening (left to right): Lael Van Keuren, David Green, Zuri Washington, Simon Jones, Anita Welch, Klea Blackhurst, Kylie Kuioka, Stephen Bogardus, Garen McRoberts, Jay Aubrey Jones, Casey Shuler
The 36th Series of Musicals in Mufti presents
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva
Music Direction/Piano – Deniz Cordell; David White – Bass
Directed by Michael Montel
Through November 3, 2019
The York Theatre
619 Lexington Avenue at 54