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BWW Review: Boffo Belter Klea Blackhurst Is In The Zone As Cole Porter's PANAMA HATTIE

The York brings back 1940 Ethel Merman smash hit.

After enchanting Broadway sophisticates with his fizzy entertainments of the 1920s and 30s, Cole Porter went decidedly middle-brow at the start of the next decade with a trio of musicals about average Janes and Joes, all including some swell comical characters serving in the U.S, military.

Panama Hattie
Stephen Bogardus and Klea Blackhurst
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

While a handful of songs in these musicals (two of which were LET'S FACE IT and SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS) contained the crisp Porter wit and captivating melodies audiences were accustomed to, their scores more typically featured bouncy tunes and genial humor. But while mostly forgotten today, the three were all smash hits and became (until KISS ME, KATE rolled in) the longest running musicals of his career.

The first of them, 1940's Panama Hattie, ran for a whopping 501 performances, a very long stretch for that era. Of course, it helped to have Ethel Merman's name above the title.

And as that title suggested, she played an American gal named Hattie who owns, and, naturally, sings in, a night spot in the Panama Canal Zone frequented by Navy gobs. In the zippy York Theatre Mufti concert production, directed by Michael Montel with music direction by Deniz Cordell, the title role is aced by the snazzy cabaret/musical theatre belter, Klea Blackhurst, who is primarily known for her Ethel Merman tribute shows.

Blackhurst doesn't impersonate the stage legend, but her stellar pipes, persuasive personality, direct delivery with punch lines and overall stage moxie are the same qualities that made Merman a star. She spends a lot of Panama Hattie planted center stage and belting out cheery numbers like "I've Still Got My Health" and "I'm Throwing A Ball Tonight" with lovable warmth but she can also stir hearts with the score's best entry, the resigned torcher, "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please."

Hattie is engaged to Nick (Stephen Bogardus in a small role that barely makes use of his lovely tenor), who controls the locks that balance the canal's water levels to help ships pass through. Nick is a single dad with an eight-year old daughter being raised by family in Philadelphia. Back then, "Philadelphia" was shorthand for being proper and reserved, so when little Jerry (totally charming Kylie Kuioka) arrives in town to live with her father full-time, she's not quite used to her future step-mother's gregarious style.

Meanwhile, local debutante Leila (Casey Shuler, wearing snootiness on her sleeve) tries breaking up the Hattie/Nick match while family butler Vivian Budd (Simon Jones expertly doing the dry British gentleman routine), who accompanied Jerry on her journey, attracts the brash romantic advances of nightclub attraction Florrie (Anita Welch).

Panama Hattie
Simon Jones and Anita Welch
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

And then there's that trio of sailors (Jay Aubrey Jones, Garen McRoberts and Joe Veale) who spend most of the show trying to meet women, who they sing about in a Bowery waltz clog "God Bless The Women," that sounds like a warm-up for "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." The boys show off their dancing skills (choreography by Trent Kidd) in a number about how joining the navy will make a hoofer out of you and team with Blackhurst and Jones in a weird little Gilbert and Sullivan sort of number "You Said It," which was probably a lot funnier in 1940.

The book is by the prolific Herbert Fields, whose expertise was always coming up with just enough gags and plot to connect songs, and B.G. DeSylva, the Broadway lyricist better known as one-third of the songwriting team DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. And while the jokes are aggressively silly (Hattie named her dog Seabiscuit because "he's always scratchin'".) and frequently sexist (most of the material written for the sailors), they're of the ilk that sold tickets in their day.

If Cole Porter wasn't quite in his prime when writing the songs for Panama Hattie, Ethel Merman was, and her presence was enough to make it worth seeing. Surrounded by a fine company, Klea Blackhurst's sunny swagger and boffo way with vintage tune makes this concert staging well worth a visit.

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From This Author Michael Dale