By David A. Rosenberg
Call it what you will: tribute, homage, celebration. But don’t call “Everything the Traffic Will Allow” an imitation. Wisely avoiding mimicry, Klea Blackhurst doesn’t try to become Ethel Merman but stands one step to the side in a cheerful, even stirring evening at Music Theater of Connecticut that is devoted to recalling the nervy, vivacious, clarion-voiced Broadway star.
Unlike the similar but ineffective “Ella” at Long Wharf, the show avoids the unconvincing device of trying to either give us a simulacrum, a Madame Tussaud waxwork come to life, or a cursory “and then I did” recital. Blackhurst unapologetically and unpretentiously channels The Merm while also letting us in on her own personal fascination with the star who reigned during the golden age of Broadway musicals.
Amenable as it is, however, the evening falters in missing Merman’s salty, unprintable humor. Blackhurst, known in Salt Lake City as “Ethel Mormon,” mentions Merman’s rough tongue but gives no examples. Perhaps she does so when playing after-hours cabarets instead of theater performances where children might be present.
Too, autobiographical details swing from germane to irrelevant. She’s engaging when talking of her early hero worship or her mother’s having played Merman’s signature role in “Annie Get Your Gun.” But she goes all slack when telling of her grandfather’s love of the ukulele (cue Blackhurst on the uke).
Yet we must be grateful for the insights. Blackhurst sprinkles her patter with inside showbiz tidbits. A darling of top composers like Gershwin, Berlin and Porter, Merman was less successful in her private life, going through four husbands, including Ernest Borgnine, who gets a blank page in her autobiography.
Blackhurst uses only songs that Merman introduced on stage. From her star-making “I Got Rhythm” from “Girl Crazy,” through “Blow Gabriel Blow” from “Anything Goes,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy” and her last appearance in, of all things, “Hello, Dolly” at the end of its run, Merman is practically a catalogue of hits. Included are lesser-known ditties, like Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health,” which rhymes “alabaster” with “Missus Astor” and “oil castor.”
Merman had her diva moments (long is the list of fellow performers she couldn’t stand), but it’s the songs that top the evening and Blackhurst sings them with verve, superbly supported by pianist Bruce Barnes. On ballads, Blackhurst’s voice is more soothing than Merman’s, whose pipes had trouble evoking true tenderness.
Blackhurst, again without imitating, slyly recreates some of the Merm’s gestures: the pointing fingers, the half-danced, choppy walk, the crinkly-eyed smile. Her diction is as impeccable (one songwriter said you had to write good lyrics for Merman since she reached every seat in the upper balcony, and without a mic). Like her idol, Blackhurst connects with the audience, here in friendly, seemingly spur-of-the-moment patter.
In today’s poisonous political era of unknown donors, rumors, innuendo and downright lies, Merman would more than ever be the real McCoy. Frank, straightforward, brooking no nonsense, she was who she was. Blackhurst accepts her sass and brass without mockery or undue reverence and the show is all the better for it. That Merman is no longer a name on everyone’s lips makes getting to know her in “Everything the Traffic Will Allow” all the sweeter.