Rescuing Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman is a victim of Bloated-Elvis Syndrome.

For many who came of age in the early ’70s or later, the Las Vegas Elvis seemed little more than a paunchy caricature — flouncing about on stage wearing embarrassing costumes, miming karate kicks and sweating profusely. It was hard to understand his appeal or to empathize with his adoring fans. This guy was a joke.

Well, I had an epiphany at a small theater in New York City, watching the film This Is Elvis. The music, of course, spoke for itself — but this was Presley as I’d never known him, presented in a more historical context. Here was the swaggering young rebel who shook it all up. I began to see beyond the sideburns and sequins. Elvis was cool. Elvis was King.

In much the same vein, actress/singer Klea Blackhurst is on a quest to rescue the late Ethel Merman from the realm of parody. Her award-winning one-woman show, Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman, opens this week at Flat Rock Playhouse.

Lest you think that comparisons with the King are too broadly drawn, consider this — what would rock ‘n’ roll be without Elvis?

And what would Broadway be without Ethel Merman?

From the moment she stepped on stage as a 20-year-old unknown in Girl Crazy and walked off a sensation, Merman was the high priestess of the Great White Way.

“During the golden age of Broadway, she was movie-star big,” Blackhurst observed in a recent phone interview. “I mean, Julia Roberts big.”

Throughout a career that spanned the 1930s through the 1970s, Merman played muse to all the greats — the Gershwins, Herman, Styne, Porter. “She became the prototype for the musical-comedy heroine,” notes Blackhurst. “A vast portion of [Traffic] is what she inspired in those creating American musical theater.”

It is Merman’s role in the evolution of the genre that Blackhurst explores in her show. Choosing to draw only from the star’s Broadway songbook, the actress pored through a wealth of material — 13 shows in all — choosing one number from each show. While many of the old chestnuts make an appearance (can you imagine a Merman tribute without “There’s No Business Like Show Business”?), Blackhurst has sprinkled in such lesser-known gems as “World, Take Me Back,” which Jerry Herman wrote specifically for Merman to sing in Hello Dolly!

“It helps to keep things fresh,” Blackhurst says.

Interwoven with the musical material are stories and anecdotes about Merman, forming a narrative that, reviewers have noted, resembles a folk tale.

“It’s a very American story,” notes Blackhurst. “She stayed in the game.”

Indeed, Merman does seem to embody many qualities traditionally associated with the American spirit: individualism, enthusiasm, professionalism. Audacity.

And, though it seems like an oxymoron, there were subtleties to Ethel Merman, not the least of which was her flawless comic timing.

“She was a very intuitive woman, a very intuitive performer. She came at you from the heart and from the gut.”

The actress’s fascination with Merman began surprisingly early.

Blackhurst was raised in Salt Lake City; show tunes, she says, were the soundtrack to her life. Her mother was a performer, starring in a USO production of Annie Get Your Gun and appearing in musical comedies at the Pioneer Theatre.

While other kids were saving their baby-sitting money for bicycles and ice cream, Broadway-obsessed Klea was collecting original cast albums and memorizing lyrics. One voice in the cacophony rang out — and rang true. Guess who?

Blackhurst, never outgrowing her devotion, wrote papers about Merman in school and practiced singing like her at home. After honing her acting, vocal and instrumental skills ranging from drums to trumpet, Blackhurst — in the great Broadway tradition — headed for New York City.

She followed her debut in Oil City Symphony with pivotal roles in Radio Gals and Buffalo Gals. All the while, she was percolating a concept — one that met with amused horror by well-meaning friends.

A tribute show about Ethel Merman? The one with the helmet hair? Bad idea.

Blackhurst did it anyway, immersing herself for two years in researching and writing the project. In preparing her revue, she could easily have become absorbed into Merman’s larger-than-life persona. Instead, she found herself.

Traffic became, in a sense, Ethel Merman channeling Klea Blackhurst, and not the other way around.

Aided by the insightful arrangements of musical director Michael Rice, Blackhurst makes Merman’s songs her own, exploring “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in ragtime and offering up “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” unplugged, accompanying herself on the ukulele.

Clearly, Blackhurst has chosen inspiration over imitation in presenting her subject. But one cannot recite from The Book of Merman without a set of pipes, and Blackhurst does not disappoint. Her voice is solid, somewhat rounder and less strident than Merman’s, and while it may not possess that “can-you-hear-me-in-the-cheap-seats” volume, her delivery lacks nothing in verve.

The show provides an admirable showcase for Blackhurst’s vocal talents, but it’s the complete package, music and narrative, which truly reveals her craft.

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