Ethel Merman is delightfully channeled via Klea Blackhurst in the concert version of the 1940 Broadway hit “Panama Hattie,” presented as the third and final show in the tribute to Cole Porter as part of this year’s Musicals in Mufti series of the York Theatre Company. Blackhurst, with her powerful Merman-like voice, previously did a tribute to Merman in “Everything the Traffic Will Allow.”
The original “Panama Hattie,” with music and lyrics by Porter and book by Herbert Fields and B G. DeSylva, has been trimmed for this York concert version, directed by Michael Montel, with the Porter score played by a two-man orchestra, music director Deniz Cordell at the piano and David White on bass. The 13-member cast is on the large side for York productions.
The plot is an especially corny and zany one. The performances are what give life and amusement to the musical, with an array of numbers not generally known, as there has never been a cast recording. Blackhurst leads the way as Hattie Maloney, a performer at a Panama joint, who is in love with Nick Bullett (Stephen Bogardus), who has a very young daughter, Geraldine, chaperoned by the very proper Vivian Budd (Simon Jones).
The big scene stealer is Kylie Kuioka as Geraldine, who is absolutely adorable, flashes mature show biz instincts, and teams charmingly with Blackhurst in the show’s best-known number “Let’s Be Buddies.” The song also gives us a glimpse of the challenge that awaits Hattie if she becomes Geraldine’s stepmom.
Along those lines, at one point Hattie remarks that she always wanted to have a child, but wondered whether she should adopt or “have one the hard way.” Blackhurst earned a huge laugh when she corrected the line with the double entendre “or to get it the hard way.”
The cockamamie plot also involves three sailors (Garen McRoberts, Joe Veale and Jay Aubrey Jones) trying to thwart a German dynamite plot.
There is an amusingly bitchy and sexy performance by attractive Casey Shuler as Leila Tree, who wants Nick for herself and plots to break up his romance with Hattie by turning Nick’s boss against him.
Don’t bother to worry or wonder about how all of the nonsense works out. What makes this Porter tribute fun is the collection of entertaining performances that remind us of what Porter could do with his music and lyrics, even though these songs were not his top-drawer contributions. The York, by recruiting Blackhurst as Hattie, guaranteed the right voice and dynamic flair. And the enthusiastic supporting entourage adds the extra-needed spice. Through November 3. At the Theater at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street, East of Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed October 28, 2019.