Off Broadway Reviews
You wouldn't expect a pre-Oklahoma! musical comedy libretto to offer much in the way of cohesion, and Panama Hattie's, by B.G. De Sylva and Herbert Fields, doesn't. I pause to reflect on it because, even for a 1940 musical comedy, it's extraordinarily slapdash. De Sylva and Fields, mostly working individually or with other collaborators, turned out some fine libretti, as well as some real dogs, and Panama Hattie falls squarely in the middle. It has some funny lines, and it's a revealing glimpse into what 1940 audiences craved and expected. But while Pal Joey was introducing tough adult characters and situations to the form, and Cabin in the Sky was serving up stylish African-American folklore, Panama Hattie is mostly about a hat and a dress.
We're in prewar Panama, where Hattie (Blackhurst), for reasons not to be bothered withDe Sylva and Fields sure didn'truns a saloon, aided by second-in-command Mac (a game David Green). She's brash and vulgar and Merman-forthright, and we instantly love her. She loves Nick (an overqualified Stephen Bogardus, allotted only half a song), whose job it is to push the button that opens and closes the locks on the canal. They want to marry, but first Hattie must secure the approval of his little daughter Jerry (Kylie Kuioka), who's just arrived from Philadelphia, her grandmother having recently passed on, which doesn't stop Nick from singing "My Mother Would Love You" to Hattie. To impress Jerry, Hattie dons a hideous ensemble, and this may be a Mufti, but Blackhurst's green dress and flowered chapeau are suitably garish. Hattie wins Jerry over with a duet, but next she must contend with the cartoon-villainess Leila (Casey Shuler), who has designs on Nick, and who sabotages Hattie with an Act One curtain incident involving a local dignitary and goldenrod, don't ask.
Meanwhile, Nick's Brit butler Vivian (Simon Jones) is pursued by Florrie (Anita Welch), while three sailors, Windy (Garen McRoberts), Skat (Joe Veale), and Woozy (Jay Aubrey Jones, strong-voiced and funny), run around and sing special material out of Cole Porter's lower drawer. Oh, and some German spies turn up late in the first act, to propel the second. And Hattie's equipped with a dog, here played by a canine statue wheeled around on a platform, mainly because Leila's last name is Tree, and having a dog around allows Hattie to deliver a choice insult for the Act One curtain.
Not much of a story, is it? (It was even less of one when Fields recycled the brash-entertainer-winning-over-her-paramour's-daughter motif for Shirley Booth in By the Beautiful Sea, 14 years later.) What's interesting is how slipshod it is. Songs that don't advance plot or define character aren't uncommon in this era, but these ditties not only don't forward the action, they sometimes contradict it. Hattie, having failed to impress Jerry, is low, but lets out with a happy "I've Still Got My Health," because it's mid-Act One and the audience expects a Merman up tune. Later, she sings "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please," not because she's getting drunk, which she already did earlier, but because she's trying not to. And a number of numbers have nothing to do with anything. Woozy, Windy, and Skat essay "Join It Right Away!" because they're under the impression that the Navy's a great place to learn how to dance, which is news to me. Later, they and a couple of others tell lame jokes in "You Said It," surely one of Porter's weakest lyrics ever, and Florrie renders "All I've Got to Get Now Is My Man" because, well, all she's got to get now is her man. Plot-integrated it isn't, but Welch is super.
Not that this obscure Porter score (there's never been a recording) isn't a keeper, generously laden with the hot Latin rhythms so popular at the time, and even touching in spots. The hit was "Let's Be Buddies," where Hattie and Jerry finally come to terms; yes, it's sentimental and obvious, but darned if it doesn't work, and Blackhurst and Kuioka play off one another just beautifully. This kid is something specialshe can act, sing, and be un-self-consciously adorable. Blackhurst's specialness we already know about: She's a superb Merm substitute, and not just because of her clarion pipes, though she surely has those. She's open, direct, instantly likable, and naturally funny, just like Ethel.
There's good work from everybody, and if the hasty Mufti rehearsal process makes for some uncertain line readings, that will improve with time. Michael Montel directs efficiently, and the two-man orchestra, Deniz Cordell on piano and David White on bass, sounds swell. Panama Hattie is no lost treasure, but as a Merman vehicle it's solid, you'll probably never get to see it again, and in Klea Blackhurst we have perhaps the most capable Merman stand-in on the planet. Go.