Klea Blackhurst: Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke’s Broadway

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Klea Blackhurst

Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke’s Broadway

Chelsea Table + Stage, NYC, April 14, 2024

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Klea Blackhurst

Brassy, sassy Klea Blackhurst has signed up at Chelsea Table + Stage for a residency in which she will share some of her previous well-received shows, which are certainly worth revisiting. The inaugural program of The Box Set series was her salute to the fine composer Vernon Duke who contributed many wonderful melodies (with lyrics by a various writing partners) to many flop musicals. He was unique in his mostly poor choice of shows to bring his classic melodies to and in composing both popular and classical works (the latter written under his birth name, Vladimir Dukelsky). Blackhurst wonderfully told of his adventurous life and the details of some of his musicals, often to comic delight. And, of course, she shared many of his songs, both famous and obscure, in her confident and generous style.

She kicked off the show with the bouncy “Not a Care in the World” (lyric by John Latouche); here Blackhurst proved once again that whenever she’s present there’s a party on the stage. She inhabited the lyrics, and the joy seemed to radiate from her every pore. She found more fun in the more obscure “You Took Me by Surprise” (Latouche), another upbeat number. Two of Duke’s more famous ballads were wisely paired next: “April in Paris” (E.Y. Harburg) and “Autumn in New York” (for which Duke wrote his own lyrics). The first was delivered with a delightful swing; the second had a gorgeous arrangement by music director Michael Rice, who led the Pocket Change Trio (Sean Harkness on guitar and Steve Doyle on bass). Blackhurst found wonderful specificity in the lyrics.

Later she made space for two lovely ballads with lyrics by Howard Dietz: “Sailing at Midnight” and “Indefinable Charm.” The first came from the musical Sadie Thompson, which was originally intended to star Ethel Merman (with Blackhurst, a reference to “the Merm” had to come up at some point). She brought a wonderful depth of emotion to these lesser-known numbers. But in delivering the wry humor of “I Can’t Get Started with You” (Ira Gershwin) and the sheer joy of “Taking a Chance on Love” (Latouche & Ted Fetter) Blackhurst truly excelled, and she generously took the audience along for the ride. She ended the formal part of her show with the most joyous number of all, the propulsive “Dancing in the Streets” (Dietz). Of course, she returned for an encore, and it was the song that first introduced the immigrant Duke to American music, “Swanee” (George Gershwin/Irving Caesar). It allowed the audience more energy with which to leave the room on the highest of clouds.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."