By Sarah Downs
In its Musicals in Mufti series, The York Theatre Company does the theater going public a great service by giving lesser known musicals an airing. Some were popular in their day, while others never actually saw the light of day. The York’s current offering, Cole Porter’s 1940 Broadway hit Panama Hattie, is among the former.
Cole Porter never disappoints. It’s so reassuring to know that the weather may change but the glow of his wit will never dim. His humor ranges from very dry to wicked to bawdy, operating on various levels so the kids will laugh but won’t get more of an education than their parents bargained for. In Panama Hattie Porter follows the template of his 1934 hit Anything Goes – a little light on story and replete with bouncing musical numbers that unabashedly play to the audience. This is not the ‘book’ musical popularized by Rodgers and Hammerstein – and later conquered by none other than Cole Porter. Panama Hattie partakes more of the vaudeville and even burlesque one sees in films of the 1930’s.
In brief, Hattie Maloney owns a nightclub in Panama. Not sure how she got there, but that’s not important. She has fallen in love with Nick Bullet (Stephen Bogardus) a local businessman born in snooty Main Line Philadelphia, but with her less than high brow taste, will Hattie pass muster with the her fiance’s boss Whitney Randolf (Gordon Stanley)? To further complicate things, Nick’s little daughter Geraldine, (the adorable Kylie Kuioka) is slated to arrive in Panama any minute. Enter the very British butler and chaperon the droll Vivian Budd (Simon Jones). Jones wrings every drop of humor out of his character, to maximum effect. Now Hattie has to gain Geraldine’s acceptance too. What is a woman to do? Well, putting on her best finery and singing “Let’s be Buddies” is a great place to start.
As Hattie, a role originated by Ethel Merman, Klea Blackhurst is the real thing. At home onstage, ready with an ad lib or a deprecatory shrug, Blackhurst is more Kay Ballard than Ethel Merman. Sure, she’s a dame singing in a club in Panama but she’s also got heart. In “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please” a nostalgic beguine in the tradition of Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Blackhurst follows nuance through shades of wistful and ironic to boldly proud (or proudly bold). What a pleasure to hear ‘belting’ as it should be i.e., singing.
Panama being a canal zone there have to be, of course, sailors. And what sailors! Windy (Garen McRoberts), Woozy (Jay Aubrey Jones) and Skat (Joe Veale) are terrific. Just off the ship, these swabbies have hit the town ready for adventure, although Windy is having a little trouble mushing with his goyle named Moytle. (Windy is from Brooklyn, so his accent is for the birds — excuse me, I mean ‘boyds!’) Brightly energetic, this trio of excellent singers electrify the air with their focus. They also have two of the better songs and much of the bawdier humor. “Fresh as a Daisy!” is particularly fun.
All of the performers do a great job. You really get a sense of the show. With its randy sailors, a brassy cabaret singer, and even a little espionage Panama Hattie is a hoot. While the witty references are a little dated, the show’s appeal is clear. The songs don’t have to be hits to get your feet tapping. Myself, I left the theater singing “Let’s Be Buddies.” I suggest you see Panama Hattie and we’ll be buddies too!
Panama Hattie, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva. Directed by Michael Montel; music direction by Deniz Cordell.
With Klea Blackhurst, Stephen Bogardus, Simon Jones, David Green, Jay Aubrey Jones, Lael Van Keuren, Kylie Kuioka, Garen McRoberts, Casey Shuler, Gordon Stanley, Joe Veale, Zuri Washington and Anita Welch.
Presented by the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (619 Lexington Ave., at 54th St. Entrance just east of Lexington Avenue on 54th St.) through Sunday, November 3rd. For tickets click HERE or call the York Theatre Box Office at 212-935-5820.