Klea Blackhurst is definitely not suffering a sophomore slump. In her second solo effort, she recently emerged as the talk of cabaret with a hit show that sold out Danny's Skylight Room night after night and has sent her in a search of a larger venue.
When we saw Blackhurst at the Duplex in 1999 in her first solo outing, we were impressed with her brash comedic skills but found her less successful when she turned to ballads; she simply did not connect with the material. With her new show, Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman, Blackhurst has neatly ducked that problem by wrapping herself in the brassy persona of a performer not particularly known for delicate introspection. She has put together a well-researched act that is tightly constructed and smartly conceived to take full advantage of her strengths while masking her weaknesses. The result is a genuinely entertaining show with often-hilarious patter and songs that evoke the image of Merman; but the show on the whole does not reveal the essence of either Merman or Blackhurst.
This is not to say that we don't learn a lot about both during the course of the proceedings, but our education takes place principally through Blackhurst's exceptional patter. We come to fully understand the emotional, if not familial, connection between our young star and Merman. And when she so easily and naturally sings in the style of The Merm, Blackhurst gives every outward indication of having channeled her musical theater heroine. For most audience members, that's enough; and for a second solo show, perhaps it's more than enough. But Blackhurst is such a gifted entertainer that one hopes she'll not only break through commercially but artistically as well, eventually finding a way to give her hommage more musical depth.
During the course of the act, Blackhurst offers a generous program of Merman's hits while taking us through the star's life and times. It's a fun ride through musical theater history. We modestly enjoy one number after the next, from Cole Porter's "You're the Top" to the encore, Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." Most every tune that Blackhurst sings has a distinctly Mermanesque ring. But it's ironic that, while Merman herself used to sing in huge Broadway houses without a microphone, the big-voiced Blackhurst relies on amplification in an intimate cabaret room. Our latter-day Merman might consider going mikeless to further extend the illusion. In any event, it's only at the very end of her show, when she belts Jerry Herman's "World, Take Me Back" (written for Merman to perform in Hello, Dolly!), that the brilliance of which Blackhurst is capable suddenly blasts through.
One of the particular strengths of this show is that Blackhurst does not present a parody of Merman. While she quotes Cole Porter's remark that Merman sounded "like a band going by," this is fundamentally a loving tribute, and that is its special charm. Right now, to further quote Porter, Klea Blackhurst is "ridin' high."