Singing For Her Supper

By Geary Danihy

I can’t remember seeing a performer work harder at singing for her supper than Klea Blackhurst does in her one-woman revue, “Everything The Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman,” which is currently running at MTC Mainstage in Westport.

Having recently seen Long Wharf’s production of “Ella: The Musical,” comparisons come easily to mind. Tina Fabrique, who portrays Ella, was backed up by an outstanding combo of musicians who filled the venue with joyous sound; Blackhurst has Bruce Barnes on piano. Barnes does yeoman work accompanying Blackhurst, but a single piano, no matter how adroitly played, can’t produce the sound created by a piano, drums, trumpet and bass.

Fabrique had a glittering set to frame her work; Blackhurst has a postage-stamp stage draped in what looks like black crepe slit to reveal a silver lining – it looks as if it was formerly used as decoration for some high school Halloween dance. Fabrique works beneath a lighting set that almost always illuminates the star to good effect, has costume changes and a 15-minute intermission during which she can recharge her vocal batteries; Blackhurst works beneath a very basic lighting plot that lacks any degree of subtlety, wears a basic black cocktail dress throughout the performance and is on stage for the entire 90 minutes of the show.

That all being said, Blackhurst, who authored the show, puts on a performance that well nigh defines what it means to be a cabaret performer and, even more important, a true trooper. In the performance I saw, Blackhurst was faced with one more hurdle that need not be mentioned but would have daunted most other performers. Lord knows what mental prep she went through before the lights went down and she appeared on stage, but whatever mantra she recited, it worked, for from start to finish Blackhurst delivered with style and elegance.

The show is a mix of tunes Merman introduced on Broadway over the span of 40 years, plus biographical patter that details the high and low points of Merman’s career (there’s actually an Ethel Merman disco album) and a bit of autobiography (Blackhurst was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, not exactly a hotbed of musical theater enthusiasts and yes, Blackhurst admits, she has been referred to more than once as “Ethel Mormon.”).

To her credit, Blackhurst’s singing style evokes that of Merman’s rather than mimics it (if that, in fact, can actually be done). Her opening medley – “I Got Rhythm” and “Johnny One Note” – is used as a primer on the Merman style, necessary for those in the audience who might not be familiar with the Broadway diva’s unique sound. The performer also does a medley of love ballads – songs one doesn’t automatically associate with Merman.

Although the patter at times runs a bit long, there are quite a few interesting pieces of insider information, including the story behind Merman’s appearance in “Hello, Dolly!” It seems producer David Merrick and song writer Jerry Herman had Merman in mind when they created the role of Dolly Levi. When offered the part, Merman demurred and Carol Channing was cast. After Channing’s departure, Merrick kept the show a hot ticket item by casting such established stars as Debbie Reynolds, Mary Martin and Pearl Bailey. Finally, for the show’s seventh iteration, Merman agreed to appear and met with Herman to confirm that he had written two songs expressly for her that were cut from the show. They were reinserted, and Blackhurst does a lovely job with one of them, “World, Take Me Back.”

Some of the numbers Blackhurst offers may not be familiar to the general audience – George Gershwin’s “Sam and Delilah” and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health,” to name but two – but the standards are there as well, including “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and a truly evocative rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

It is often noted in reviews that a performer has carried the show he or she is in. For a visual and auditory example of exactly what that means, get down to MTC Mainstage and take in Blackhurst’s performance. You will be both entertained and educated, for you will learn in no uncertain terms what it means to be “in the spotlight” and deliver.

“Everything the Traffic Will Allow” runs through Sunday, Oct 24. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.  

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