Christine and her parents, at Tsugoi…with the Sushi Ark! 10* of every kind of sushi were brought aboard… (*6 kinds only)

While Christine’s parents were visiting us in late February, the four of us scored free tickets to Panama: The Musical, showing in the northwest part of town near the Canal. The show is billed as Panama’s first musical, with an all-Panamanian cast, and one articles states that even the ministry of tourism for the country put a reported $50,000 into the show. It’s already slated to run again in 2019 and 2020, which is really incredible support for the first national musical. Here are some photos (wallpapers, even!) from their official website.

The four of us enjoyed seeing it, and it was a great first-time presentation for a nation not yet known for having a Broadway style scene of its own yet. But since the show will go on again for at least two more years in Panama (and the fact they’re calling it a World Premiere here in PC means they have plans to travel too!) we also had a few thoughts about where the musical unfortunately had some problems.

First of all, the leading ladies, Gabby Gnazzo and Alexandra Cordoba, had great voices and were a joy to listen to. However, my linguistics-teaching girlfriend pointed out that it’s a Panamanian habit to not properly enunciate English language consonants, and these ladies, singing in their second (or even third, or fourth – who knows) language, bring that mild consonant slurring into their singing. Great voices, but very difficult to tell what they were singing about almost all the time. Far better than I could sing musicals in Spanish though, of course!

Thankfully though, the plot of the play was rather…simplistic. Now that 2018’s show has ended I feel okay saying that a mild spoiler is that it’s a standard “boy is in love with girl, bad guy wants to steal girl instead” style plot. Since the show is named “Panama: The Musical” all four of us had really been hoping that the story would focus on something uniquely Panamanian, something to make it stick out in one’s memory. It’s set in the 1920’s, which would have been a bright new time in young Panamanians’ minds with the canal newly finished and providing a lot of work to the economy. But it has a very USA style to it, which might have been a great way to bring in curious audience goers if the play had been in Spanish – “what was it like to be a worker with all the gringos back in the 1920’s What was life like for our young men and women back then?”

But because the play is in English, I have to assume the target audience is going to be short-term tourists, expats like Christine and I that live in the country, and highly educated Panamanians who speak English fluently. This, unfortunately, automatically limits the visibility for the play to the local audience.

Initially, we saw that the play’s tickets were being sold for as much as $60-80 per ticket…Broadway level prices! As time went on though, we saw they went on Gustazo and OfertaSimple, two local “Groupon” style deal sites. Both Christine and her mom applied for “four free ticket” drawings on the Panama Musical website…and both of them won four tickets. When we appeared for our free showing, we saw that for the matinee, there were only 20-30 people in a theatre that could hold two hundred.

I feel bad for Panama: The Musical because I worry they might have bitten off more than they can chew. I feel like a city, and especially an entire nation, should gauge the health of their community theatre…community…(hmm) before committing tens of thousands of dollars to showcasing a new interest in musicals. Why an English language musical as the nation’s first heavily advertised and even government subsidized showing? Why limit yourselves to only fluent English speakers?

Sadly, the show’s final fifteen minutes were particularly bizarre and strayed even into the disappointingly “campy”…camp. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say there’s a lot of Deus Ex Machina and rapidly trying to resolve the plot all at once. Our main sinister bad guy goes from about to win and cement his victory, to being whapped on the head from behind. You can almost hear the “wah wah wahhhh” trombone sound as he rolls his eyes back theatrically and collapses. Once again…it’s a very simple plot and I don’t think it spoils anything to hear that yes, the good guys win and the bad guys lose. No surprise.

The writers could patch things up a bit by removing some of the musical reprises and using that breathing space to slow down and pace out the ending, instead of making it feel rushed. They could potentially rethink the ending and make it a little less slapstick. It was just very jarring to have this serious love story with passionate (if sometimes incomprehensible lyrics) singing ended with slapstick, and it felt almost like an entirely different musical was bolted onto the last 15 minutes.

The front of the program says outright that the directors, producers, and writers view this show as a labor of love, and they know that it will need to be tweaked. As someone who wants to see more musicals all over the world, I have the best of hopes for them, especially since apparently the ministry of tourism itself sees this as something that they want to patronize. I sincerely hope that more money will be given to smaller, more local community theatres and their shows, to build an organic audience of local Panamanians that see theatre and musicals as a great way to spend their time and money both as an audience and even as actors.

But right now, now that the run has ended (I didn’t want to write this while the show was going on, so I waited til after it was finished to write a semi-critical review), while the play was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours, I’d unfortunately have to say that it would have been ridiculously overpriced at $60, or even $40. At its current level of sophistication, the show would be worth $15-20 – the sets, costumes and talent of the orchestra were great – it’s just the story of the show itself, and the pronunciation of the singers, that left us feeling like there were some major improvements that could be made.

But remember, as one of the opening songs points out…necesistas tener un sueño! 🎶

The cast wasn’t around to pose with after the show, so their in-theatre poster will have to do!