Club Review: Klea Blackhurst’s “One of the Girls—The Words and Music of Jerry Herman”

March 3, 2022 | By

Klea Blackhurst is one of those rare songbirds who can build a show out of intelligent patter and amusing anecdotes. Her act, which she brought to Birdland Feb. 21, is called One of the Girls, subtitled The Words and Music of Jerry Herman.

She comes by that title honestly: Herman himself designated her one of his girls when he caught her Dolly Levi in Goodspeed’s 50th anniversary production of Hello, Dolly! in 2014. It was clear to him that his words wear well on her brassy belt—a case of the right singer with the right sound.

Klea Blackhurst (Photo: Christopher Boudewyns)

Blackhurst tested the waters with the act last October at Birdland Theater and has now moved upstairs to the big tables—larger stage, different acoustics and a greater audience. The sound that happens in the Birdland main room when the crowd goes nuts over a performer is a roar. A big roar—and that happened four or more times during the evening. 

She surrounded herself with her “Pocket Change Trio”—Michael Rice (piano), Ray Kilday (bass) and Aaron Russell (drums). The parameters of Mark Waldrop’s tight direction were still in place.

More than a salute, the evening was a dizzy concoction of her personal connection to Herman’s music through various stages of her life. She made it a hop-skip-and-jump kind of journey, like a hostess throwing her own birthday party, making sure every guest is greeted and introduced to everyone else worth knowing.

She starts with a snappy “Just Leave Everything to Me,” which Herman wrote for Streisand’s Dolly, then segues into “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” which he wrote on spec one weekend to land thea contract with David Merrick and finishes up with “Open a New Window,” which she did as a high school Mame in Utah.

Herman was introduced to the Broadway sound when his parents took him to see Ethel Merman’s Annie Get the Gun, and the die was cast. He found the singer and the show-tune sound. Blackhurst makes a case that Herman and Irving Berlin did more with less and makes her point by mixing  Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” with Herman’s “Time Heals Everything.” 

One never knew where this musical journey would travel next, but musical director Rice provided helpful signposts along the way with his gentle and very precise underscoring, either leading into songs or guiding the stories she shared. The show flowed effortlessly, magically.

Rice was also the wise recharger for her enthusiasm, keeping her on track so that numbers like “Just Go to the Movies” came off like clockwork. (Herman wrote that in 24 hours on an S.O.S. call from Tommy Tune when he was trying out A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine in Buffalo.)

So many songs, even more stories.

Blackhurst’s growth both as a singer and as a performer is palpable now. Director Waldrop has made her look comfortable and charming. She has mastered that art of looking audience members directly in the eye, as if confiding to them. 

There are limits, of course. She can’t really fill out the darker songs, the torch songs. Dear World’s “I Don’t Want to Know” is a case in point, sung by a madwoman with a tenuous grasp on reality. It’s a slowly accelerating waltz that gets darker and faster like Ravel’s “La Valse” or Jacques Brel’s “Carousel”. She gets a great hand, but her rendition never has a mad denial. 

But it’s not the kind of song she sang years ago. Now, she can afford to take the risk. “Time Heals Everything” is a full-blown torch song, but she sang it with a soft sadness rather than as a woman who knows she should’ve walked out long ago.

No, these renditions won’t be the kind of repertoire this protean talent will be known for. She has her very own place in this business—an out and out musical-theater variety act, the kind they don’t seem to be able to write musical plays for nowadays.

Ah, but Jerry Herman got her individual gifts. In 2019, he asked her to ccme down to visit him in Florida so he could give her an unpublished song he’d written for Nightcap, an Off-Broadway revue of the ‘50s. He told it would suit her to a “T.” It’s called “My Type Is Coming Back.”

Let’s hope so.

***

Presented at Birdland on February 21, 2022.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Charles Nelson, a former professor in theatre, specializes in world theatre history, playscript and character analysis, stage direction, the American playwright and musical theatre, opera history, dance history, and the Great American Songbook. He has an MFA in Opera Direction, and was an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University. He has been an editorial researcher at "People" magazine, NBC News, and Condé Nast.

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  1. Getchie Argetsinger says:

    Terrific and richly detailed review of Klea Blackhurst’s One of the Girls, The Words and Music of Jerry Herman! Fascinating history about both Klea’s & Jerry’s enormous talents. Sing it from the roof tops, Klea we need your magic!