If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

ETHEL MERMAN CELEBRATED AT WESTPORT'S MTC

Legendary singers Ethel Merman and Ella Fitzgerald are given the musical revue treatment by two area theatres this month.  New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre is presenting Tina Fabrique as Fitzgerald in “Ella” and, at Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut, Klea Blackhurst pays tribute to Merman in her revue, “Everything the Traffic Will Allow”.  Both productions promise plenty of energy and an abundance of great music.

Subtitled “The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman”, the revue at the Music Theatre of Connecticut offers plenty of both.  Unlike Ms. Fabrique’s performance as "Ella", the vibrant Klea Blackhurst does not attempt an impersonation of Merman.  This proves a wise decision because, frankly, who could live up to Broadway’s bigger-than-life performer?  Blackhurst does, however, have the requisite chops to tackle the songs made famous by the singer and is a true belter in the best sense of the word.  She is both expressive and expansive in performance drawing her audience in with sheer verve, wit and personality.

Often a drawback, the intimate 60-seat MTC setting is actually an ideal fit for this kind of musical revue and by confining the program to just the Broadway songbook of Merman, Blackhurst has given us 90 minutes of mostly “hits-only” entertainment that covers major work from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerry Herman and Cole Porter.  Classic songs here include “Johnny One Note”, “Blow, Gabriel Blow”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

Like Fabrique, Blackhurst also shares some theatre history about her idol.  Backstage gossip is always welcome and in “Everything the Traffic Will Allow” we do get some interesting tidbits about Merman’s early career with the Gershwins and Irving Berlin.  It’s also fascinating to hear Blackhurst’s account of how “Hello, Dolly!” was originally written for Merman who, by that time, had already left the business and refused the role.  Blackhurst’s final number, “World, Take Me Back”,  is a “lost song” from “Hello, Dolly!” written especially for Merman and it’s a winner.

While smoothly paced, Blackhurst would still be wise to trim some of the patter.  Many of her stories involve the performer’s own family and upbringing in Utah (she jokes that she is often called “Ethel Mormon”) and, while engaging, it adds little to our knowledge of the main topic.  Instead, it would be fun to hear more “scandalous” stories about the straight-talking singer and her many marriages.  Sondheim shared a terrific anecdote about Merman and Loretta Young in his recent Broadway revue – Blackhurst should attempt to borrow it for her own show.

Musical director and pianist Bruce Barnes offers snappy accompaniment and is an affable performer in his own right.  Scenic designer Scott Holdredge has shrouded MTC’s tiny stage with yards of dark fabric giving a funereal appearance to the proceedings.  Some lighter material would have brightened the ambience considerably.  Not to worry. Klea Blackhurst offers her own bright wattage and never seems to dim.  Apparently she has nine other shows in her repertoire.  A return visit to Westport should be mandatory.

 “Everything the Traffic Will Allow” plays through October 24th at the Music Theatre of Connecticut.  For further information or ticket information, call the theatre box office at 203.454.3883 or visit: www.mtcmainstage.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

 This review first appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning October 13, 2010


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