Cole Porter’s cruise through the Panama Canal in January 1940 and the fears of the nation as to the German and Japanese threats to the Canal Zone with the U.S. on the brink of joining World War II may be the inspiration for the musical comedy Panama Hattie, the fourth and most successful show that Porter wrote for Ethel Merman. As the third and last show of its Cole Porter Series, The York Theatre Company’s Fall 2019 Musicals in Mufti is presenting Michael Montel’s delightful production of this rarely revived musical comedy, a farce actually, as a staged concert with book in hand.
An example of the light entertainments that were typical of Broadway fare before the game-changing Oklahoma!, Panama Hattie’s score includes the ever-popular standard, “Make It Another Old Fashioned Please,” as well as a great many clever and witty unfamiliar songs. While you probably couldn’t write such a show today, its droll book with its raucous and low humor by veterans Herbert Field and B.G. DeSylva still gets its laughs just as Porter’s lyrics do even though most of the 1940’s references have become passé.
While the original production had a great many one-of-a-kind stars supporting Merman, one of the distinctions of the York production is its cast: Montel has been able to obtain the services of Klea Blackhurst for Hattie Maloney, the Ethel Merman role. Blackhurst, you may know, has specialized in Merman for years including her tribute show Everything the Traffic Will Allow as well as appearing in the Merman roles in revivals of Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue, Call Me Madam and The York’s staging of Happy Hunting. Montel has also surrounded her with seasoned theater veterans including Stephen Bogardus, Simon Jones, Gordon Stanley and David Green. The members of the singing and dancing chorus are equally talented.
The thin plot concerns Hattie Maloney (Blackhurst), an American chanteuse who runs a nightclub in Panama City. Engaged to Nick Bullett (Bogardus), a divorced naval officer who works in the control room of the canal, she is perturbed to discover that his precocious eight-year-old daughter Geraldine (Kylie Kuioka) from main-line Philadelphia is coming to visit him with her equally snooty butler, the very English Vivian Budd (Simon Jones). As Hattie is a little backward on the social graces and as Nick has not seen his daughter in seven years, this is cause for alarm.
Hattie’s prospective marriage also hinges on the approval of Nick’s boss Whitney Randolph (Stanley) who has very little sense of humor. Other complications include the admiral’s daughter and arbiter of the Canal Zone’s social set Leila Tree (Casey Shuler) attempting to break up Hattie’s romance with Nick and a German plot to blow up the canal. All ends up happily with Hattie and Nick about to be married. Among serious themes touched on are alcoholism, single-parenting, and international terrorism.
Blackhurst exhibits the big personality she has demonstrated previously as the gold-hearted but uncouth Hattie. Given the majority of the songs which she makes the most of, she only gives a brassy, belting performance of “I’ve Still Got My Health,” a paean to positive thinking. Among her other memorable numbers are the duets, the clever list song, “My Mother Would Love You” (able matched by Bogardus), and the bouncing “Let’s Be Buddies” sung with the remarkable child actress Kylie Kuioka as eight-year-old Gerry who is able to hold her own with this clarion-voiced singer. In Blackhurst’s hands the well-known, “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” becomes a memorably plaintive ballad.
A trio of sailors delightfully played by Jay Aubrey Jones, Garen McRoberts, and Joe Veale are given most of the patter and list songs to which they add the fast-paced dances of choreographer Trent Kidd in varying combinations: “Join It Right Away,” a lively tribute to the US. Navy, and the lilting “Fresh as a Daisy!” in which McRoberts and Veale are joined by Florrie played by a sultry Anita Welch.
In the second act the men are joined by Blackhurst and Jones for the remarkably witty, “You Said It” in which each of the quintet hase a verse of their own on the state of the world. The three sailors have a last specialty number with “God Bless the Women,” a precursor to the better known “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” from Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate. Welch’s Florrie has her own solo with the comic torch song, “All I’ve Got to Get Now Is My Man.”
In the somewhat underwritten role of Nick Bullett, Bogardus is charming if out-classed by the more exuberant characters. Shuler’s deceitful Leila is a paragon of arrogance and haughtiness. Jones, an English actor long in the U.S., has just the right soupçon of condescension as the disapproving butler and chaperone who becomes the object of Flossie’s not-so-appreciated affection. Although not given much to do, Stanley as navy big-wig Randolf exudes authority. Among the sailors, Jay Aubrey Jones in the Rags Ragland role as Woozy Hogan gives heft to this braggart comic character who is continually getting shot down by the ladies.
As there are no scenic effects or slide projections, lighting designer Joyce Liao gaily changes the colors of the back drop for each scene and number. The deft playing of music director Deniz Cordell at the piano and David White on bass complement the singers in this syncopated score without ever overpowering them. This may be a tribute to the powerful voices of this cast of 13. Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie may be a relic of a bygone age but The York Theatre Company production proves that there is still excellent entertainment in the old girl yet.
Panama Hattie (through November 3, 2019)
Musicals in Mufti 2019 Fall Season: The Cole Porter Series
The York Theatre Company, in association with Riki Kane Larimer
Theater at Saint Peter’s 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission