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Theatre in Review: Panama Hattie (York Theatre Company)

Stephen Bogardus, Klea Blackhurst. Photo: Russ Rowland.

The York concludes its Musicals in Mufti Cole Porter retrospective with this Ethel Merman vehicle from 1940. A smash at the time, it is tailored to the talents of Porter's favorite star -- so much so that its afterlife was fairly brief, consisting mostly of a London company starring Bebe Daniels and a tour in the 1950s with Ann Miller. For whatever reason, book writers Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva decided it would be fun to have Merman running around in the tropics, doing what she usually did; aside from a few good jokes -- of the kind that Brooks Atkinson liked to call "rowdy" -- there isn't much more to it.

The title character is a brassy nightclub singer in a Panama nightclub. Nick, her fiancé, who is an engineer or something in the Canal Zone -- apparently, he pushes the buttons that make the water level rise and fall -- has an eight-year-old daughter, raised in Philadelphia, whom he hasn't seen in seven years. She turns up, not knowing what to make of her father's leather-lunged girlfriend and her blowsy wardrobe. Because this conflict is resolved long before Act I is over, the authors throw in a scheming debutante who thinks Nick is her personal property, a trio of frisky sailors, an English butler (originally played by Arthur Treacher) chased by one of the local floozies, and a plot involving Nazi spies. So little time is spent on the latter that if you happen to look at your program for a second, you might miss it altogether.

Panama Hattie would have been more fun if it didn't have so much book, but Porter's score has some nifty items. "My Mother Would Love You" is a charmer of a ballad for Nick and Hattie, and "I've Still Got My Health" has some typically impudent rhymes: "By fashion and foppery, I'm never discussed/Attending the opry, my box would be a bust." "I'm Throwin' a Ball Tonight" has one of those maddeningly catchy Porter rhythms, although since Hattie sings it about a party that she is attending, not giving, I'm not sure what it all means. And the authors go to the trouble of having Hattie, a teetotaler, briefly fall off the wagon so she can deliver the evergreen "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please." That one is prime Porter, served straight, no chaser, and it's worth every note.

Anyway, you're in good hands with this company. Klea Blackhurst, who often channels the Merman spirit in her cabaret shows, is a fine Hattie, belting with brio and making the most of her cracks, like this one about a romantic rival: "I'd like to see her surrounded by six silver handles!" Steven Bogardus provides stalwart support as Nick, singing beautifully as always. And Simon Jones, outfitted in morning coat and derby, is as dry as Gordon's gin as that butler who doesn't know how to handle sultry tropical dames. As Nick's daughter, little Kylie Kuioka has an alarmingly skilled way with a line; I bet she kept the adults on their toes during rehearsals. She has a good time partnering with Blackhurst on "Let's Be Buddies," the number that was, at the time, the show's biggest talking point, thanks to the novelty of Merman duetting with a kid. Jay Aubrey Jones, Garen McRoberts, and Joe Veale are good company as the sailors, cutting loose in an oddball number about the Navy as a kind of dance academy and throwing around jokes like the one about the girl with "Triborough teeth - her bridgework went in three directions."

Michael Montel, who has directed many Mufti productions -- the York's term for concert presentations with the actors carrying scripts -- keeps things moving, and Trent Kidd's choreography has some lively moments. The performance I attended was a little tentative but should pick up considerably for its second and final weekend. Joyce Liao's no-frills lighting gets the job done. Equally fun and forgettable, Panama Hattie will nevertheless be catnip to Porterphiles and fans of old-time Broadway. I would note that there are plenty more of his shows that could use another look: How about another Mufti season with, say, Jubilee, Let's Face It!, and Something for the Boys? --David Barbour

(30 October 2019)

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