By Marilyn Lester
The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti Series is a real blessing. Over its 25-year history, Mufti has presented the rare opportunity for theater works of the past to be seen and experienced again. With 1940’s Panama Hattie, what’s resulted is the mounting of an amusing bona fide museum piece. Since it originally appeared on Broadway, this vehicle for its star, Ethel Merman, has rarely been seen on the boards. There is good reason for this absence. The property itself isn’t terribly compelling out of time and place. Besides Merman’s larger than life portrayal of Hattie Maloney, theater was already beginning to change. A couple of guys named Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were about to upend the musical with a daring new 1943 work called Oklahoma.
But in 1940, when Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for the book by Herbert Field and B. G. DeSylva, it was still the era of the madcap and the screwball. Even the title is a parody, based on the very popular men’s headwear of the era, the Panama hat. The original production was, quoting New York Times critic, Brooks Atkinson, “noisy, funny and in order…with all the advantages of a burlesque show.” Here is where the York production falls short of the mark. It has none of these elements, with many missed opportunities to mine the type of comedy intended in the spirit of the day. This iteration of Panama Hattie just wasn’t funny enough. Gamely trying, though, and coming very close, was Klea Blackhurst as Hattie. Blackhurst was born in the Merman mold––obviously it wasn’t thrown away after the original was cast. Blackhurst has the Mermanesque voice, flair and comic timing to pump life and pizzazz into her Hattie. Her antics around the staging of the bomb discovery and disposal scene were priceless.
Director Michael Montel’s task was not only to shape up a cast with only a week of rehearsal, but to shape up the script as well. Of necessity, cuts were made, for time and correctness, for a modern audience––even with an understanding of historical context. The penultimate song, for example, the chauvinistic “God Bless the Women,” would never be written in today’s age of equality. Likewise, the opener “Join It Right Away,” is risqué in a way that might raise the hackles of certain of the #metoo set. Still, Montel kept the pacing quick, with first-rate staging bits that kept the action fairly cohesive and flowing.
The plot, featuring sailors and nightclub gals, is basically a cartoon. It’s not meant to go deep and thus provides what should be the zany basis for its burlesque. Hattie, a big and brassy singer at a club in the Panama Canal Zone, is betrothed to the upper crust Nick Bullett, played engagingly by a sensitive and sympathetic Stephen Bogardus. Complications ensue when Nick’s eight-year old daughter, Geraldine, comes to live with her father. Kylie Kuioka makes the case for the old theatrical adage about never playing with a child actor. She’s cute as a button and dug into her role with staggering talent and insight. Yes, she was a scene stealer.
Other plot twists abounded. Casey Shuler, playing the supercilious Leila Tree with well-honed snootiness, tries her best to undermine Hattie at every turn. Geraldine’s clueless and proper English butler and minder, Vivian Budd, played with complete, nuanced perfection by Simon Jones, becomes the love object of man-hungry club singer Florrie, played by Anita Welch.
Three sailors, the agreeable Woozy (Jay Aubrey Jones), Windy (Garen McRoberts) and Skat (Joe Veale) are completely focused on getting girls. Then there’s the bomb. This subplot features two German spies who contrive to blow up the Panama Canal, until Hattie saves the day. Featured players David Green (Mac the Bartender), Gordon Stanley (Whitney Randolph), Lael Van Kueren (Mildred) Zuri Washington (Kitty-Belle) provided solid support for the main cast and the plot antics.
Notably, none of the tuneful songs in Panama Hattie went on to be major standards in their own right. Most are the kind of esoterica that song archivists like Bobby Short or Steve Ross love to revive. Yet, they all bear the Porter stamp of pleasing melody and smart lyrics, such as “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please” (sung with terrific comedic timing by Blackhurst). Another Porter gambit of throwing references into the lyric of notables of the day was rampant in “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight” and also in “I’ve Got My Health.” Interested parties will want to Google the likes of Mayor Hague, Wendell Willkie, Grace Moore, Father Divine and the Morgan twins for starters.
Manning the piano was the musically gifted Deniz Cordell, with a great feel for Porter. His energetic and enthusiastic playing was synergistically matched on the upright bass by the melodic and harmonic gifts of David White. Choreography by Trent Kidd was all too fleeting, but in the short segments displaying his fine work was the feeling of “more please.” Lighting design was provided by Joyce Liao, with James Morgan serving as scenic consultant.
Panama Hattie plays through November 3 at the York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave. (at 54th Street), NYC. For more information and tickets, visit www.yorktheatre.org