By: Paulanne Simmons
October 28, 2019: These days when musicals routinely explore questions of race, gender and politics, a highly entertaining but completely frivolous one like Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie may come as a welcome relief. Originally produced in 1940, with a book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva, the show was conceived as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, who played the eponymous American singer working in a Panama City nightclub.
But if that weren’t enough to ensure success, the show also had plenty of sailors, a cute little girl and a dog. These were hard times. With Europe in turmoil and America in the throes of the great Depression, people needed relief. In 2019 we are again in difficult times, and The York Theatre Company’s concert revival for its Musical in Mufti series doesn’t come a moment too soon.
The production features Klea Blackhurst (best known for her Ethel Merman tribute, Everything the Traffic Will Allow) as the effervescent Hattie Maloney, and Broadway veteran Stephen Bogardus as Nick, her fiancé. Nick is a Naval officer whose 8-year-old daughter, Geraldine (the delightful Kylie Kuioka), comes to live with him after a long separation. She brings with her the very proper family butler, Vivian Budd (Simons Jones).
If Bogardus is a sincere but somewhat contained lover, Blackhurst is as bold and brassy as the great lady who originated the role. If Blackhurst is the kite, Bogardus is her string, and together they make the show soar.
The musical has a serpentine plot and several subplots. Hattie and Geraldine do not immediately hit it off (“Let’s Be Buddies”). Kitty-Belle (Zuri Washington), the daughter of Admiral Whitney Randolph (Gordon Stanley), wants to marry Nick and plots to get Hattie out of the way. Florrie (Anita Welch), another nightclub singer, falls for the butler (“Fresh as a Daisy”). The sailors – Skat (Joe Veale), Windy (Garen McRoberts) and Woozy (Jay Aubrey Jones) – are looking for love and singing a lot about it (“Join It Right Away,” “God Bess the Women”). They end up discovering a plot to blow up the canal but not much closer to finding a sweetheart.
Although the show does not contain Porter’s biggest hits, the songs are all tuneful and have some of his cleverest lyrics: “Since I went on the wagon, I’m certain drink is a major crime/For when you lay off the liquor, you feel so much slicker/Well that is, most of the time.” There are solos, duets and ensemble numbers, which gives the performers lots of opportunity to show off their chops.
The cast for Musical in Mufti shows has less than a week to rehearse. That Panama Hattie sails so smoothly is a tribute to the talent of everyone involved.
Panama Hattie ****
The York Theatre
619 Lexington Ave. (enter on 54 Street) www.yorktheatre.org.
Through Nov. 3, 2019
Photography: Russ Rowland