Klea Blackhurst(Photo © Heather Sullivan)
Klea Blackhurst
(Photo © Heather Sullivan)
"If you feel like singing, sing," goes an ancient Judy Garland ditty -- and that fairly well sums up the performance style of Klea Blackhurst, one of the most valuable artists on today's cabaret scene. Whereas the rest of the pack so often intellectualizes the Great American Songbook, going in for unwieldy tune pairings, elaborately unfaithful arrangements, and ironies that aren't there, Blackhurst upholds an earlier, simpler aesthetic.

Like Ethel Merman, whom she cites as an inspiration and whom she has saluted in previous cabaret shows and CDs, Blackhurst tends to plant her feet and belt out optimistic sentiments. She has a big, siren-like contralto and a plain-Jane Utah accent. She can do the ironic, bitter, flog-the-subtext thing expertly when she wants to but, unlike so many of her contemporaries, irony isn't her default mode. I'd place her persona closer to Doris Day's than the Merm's; in fact, I think the producers of the upcoming Pajama Game revival need look no further than Blackhurst for their Babe.

On her new CD Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway (Ghostlight Records), the program of which was also the basis of a recent cabaret engagement, Blackhurst takes a detour from her usual repertoire. The Broadway composer Vernon Duke (1903-1969) never had a hit musical; the closest he got was 1940's Cabin in the Sky. And while he could write straightforward show tunes, his leanings toward rangy songs with odd harmonies and unusual construction may be one reason for his lack of popular success.

A Russian intellectual with ample classical training -- under his real name, Vladimir Dukelsky, he had a productive parallel career turning out sonatas, ballets, art songs, and concerti -- Duke often steered clear of standard Broadway fare. Yet George Gershwin championed him early on, and the two formed a mutual admiration society. (The 17-year-old Duke was mesmerized by Gershwin's "Swanee," which closes out the CD. As Blackhurst writes in her own, well-researched notes, "I cannot begin to tell you much I love the image of a teenager getting high on 'Swanee.' ")

Duke's career was one of failed promise and frustration. Though he collaborated with the likes of Ogden Nash, Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, and John Latouche, Duke had no steady lyricist. He was plagued by divas who couldn't sing his songs (Bette Davis in Two's Company), stars who closed would-be hits prematurely (Eddie Cantor shut down Banjo Eyes because he couldn't take the New York winter), and big-name temperament (Merman walked out five days into rehearsals of Sadie Thompson because she considered Dietz's lyrics too dirty), not to mention bad timing (Zenda has some fascinating music but swashbuckling operetta was on life support by 1963) and bad books (Jackpot, The Lady Comes Across).

As a result, admirers of Duke's output haven't found much to savor on disc. Decca Broadway did preserve the City Center Encores! revival of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 a few seasons back, and it's a revelation. Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke (Nonesuch) has some choice cuts. The cast recording of the gratingly sung Off-Broadway revival of Cabin in the Sky, out of print on Capitol, doesn't begin to do that seminal score justice. There's the old Ben Bagley album Vernon Duke Revisited on Painted Smiles, but it's fatally compromised by Bagley's customarily campy treatment and nasal vocals by some strange guest artists. (Joan Rivers?)

So into the void steps Blackhurst, serving up a thoughtful collection of Duke standards, semi-standards, and obscurities. An eight-piece band is led by Michael Rice, whose arrangements include some needless apostrophizing, but Blackhurst's engaging artistry shines through. She comes out swinging with "Not a Care in the World" and it's a lovely, simple interpretation of this upbeat Latouche lyric -- Blackhurst at her best. She's a natural when expressing regret in "I Can't Get Started"; just listen to the deep longing she brings to the line "Scheme / Just for a sight of you." If she's a little baffled by E.Y. Harburg's playful, almost Dadaist lyrics to "I Like the Likes of You," she makes up for it with an elegant "April in Paris." Duke's other great-time-great-place classic, "Autumn in New York" (with his own lyrics, suggesting that he was no slouch as a wordsmith) is even better thanks to Price's suave, unfussy arrangement. "Taking a Chance on Love" is also wonderful, its casual intro modeled on that of Ethel Waters' rendition in the movie version.

But Duke fans will be most grateful for the non-standard stuff. Blackhurst shows particular sensitivity in two items from Sadie Thompson: "Poor as a Churchmouse" is a fine character-establishing number in which Blackhurst projects more warmth and nonchalance than Merman might have offered; and "Sailing at Midnight" is a real find, a soft rumba with some of the most bizarre chords Duke or anyone else ever bequeathed to Broadway. Dancing in the Streets, also with lyrics by Dietz, was yet another piece of Broadway roadkill -- even though Mary Martin passed up Oklahoma! to do it. But the title song is a Cohan-like rouser well-suited to Blackhurst. And "Indefinable Charm" is another major rediscovery, a sophisticated foxtrot that sounds like the bastard child of Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

I have just one complaint: At 12 tracks amounting to just over 40 minutes in total length, this is a very compact compact disc. There's so much more Duke to which one can imagine Blackhurst bringing a fresh perspective: "Just Like a Man," which Davis brayed in Two's Company; "I Cling to You," a pensive, little-known ballad that Duke wrote for the late, great Hildegarde; and any number of songs from Zenda, whose score survives only on a scratchy sound-system tape. So c'mon, Klea -- hurry up and get started on Volume 2!

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[Ed. Note: Klea Blackhurst will perform songs from Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway with Michael Rice and The New Pocket Change Trio at Joe's Pub on Sunday and Monday, August 28 and 29, at 7:30pm.]