With ‘Nutty’ Broadway hopes, Utah grad Klea Blackhurst home to sing for scholarships
By Ellen Fagg Weist
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 04 2014 11:47AM
Utah-born singer and actor Klea Blackhurst can tell theater students what it’s like to decamp to New York and wait for the phone to ring.
To wait after an audition to hear if she got the part. To wait after an out-of-town tryout to find out if her character in the new Jerry Lewis-directed musical, "The Nutty Professor," might make it to Broadway.
Like most actors, she’s spent a lot of her professional life that way, waiting for the phone call about a job that will pave the way to the rest of her career.
But she’s also learned that it’s easier on the performer’s psyche to worry, instead, about something more important: making good work and showing it to people. "One thing leads to another, and it all adds up to a very interesting career," she says.
She’s reminded of that every time she has the opportunity to sing "While I Still Have the Time," one of the musical gifts left behind by composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August 2012. She’s been performing that number — written for Miss Lemon, the character she originated in a 2012 Nashville production of Hamlisch and Lewis’ musical "Nutty Professor" — around the country at tributes to the late composer, sharing the bill with heroes such as Barbra Streisand, Lucie Arnaz and Aretha Franklin. "Musical theater gives us these moments, and this one fell to me to sing it," she says. "It’s an awesome, beautiful gift."
"While I Still Have the Time" is one of the numbers Blackhurst will perform at a fundraiser on Friday, March 7, for her alma mater, the theater program at the University of Utah. Department officials hope to raise $20,000 from the concert.
"What I love is that it’s very tiny, not brassy or belty at the beginning, it’s very contemplative," she says. "And then it just kind of builds into a big, anthemic Hamlisch rouser. It’s really exciting to sing. I hit those notes, and I can feel how it hits my body, and it hits people’s ears the same way."
Blackhurst, a 1981 Cottonwood High School graduate, grew up on local stages, beginning before her birth when her pregnant mother, Winkie Tedesco Horman, performed the role of Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" Blackhurst remembers falling asleep in the aisles at Pioneer Theatre Company as a young girl, waiting for her mother to finish rehearsals. At 10, she performed in PTC’s production of "The King and I."
After graduating from the U. in 1985, she headed for New York City with a freshly minted Actors Equity union card, earned in a PTC production of "Hello, Dolly!" "I had the tools I needed," she says, thanks to her training from the U.
In New York, when she was cast in the off-Broadway show "Oil City Symphony," she learned the director was looking for someone to play the drums. That’s when Blackhurst rented rehearsal space and taught herself how to play, says Anne Cullimore Decker, who taught Blackhurst at the U. in theater and directing classes before hiring her for personal voice lessons.
"She was not only bright, she was like a sponge," says Decker of her former student who became a colleague and a friend. "Her sensibility about what a show needs — or what she needs — is spot-on."
After 15 years of working in New York, when Blackhurst wasn’t getting the variety of roles she wanted, she found another way. Her one-woman cabaret show honoring Ethel Merman won rave reviews from New York critics, leading to a national tour and a well-regarded CD, "Everything the Traffic Will Allow: The Songs and Sass of Ethel Merman." That led to further explorations of the Great American Songbook, in cabaret shows featuring the work of musical theater composers Vernon Duke and Hoagy Carmichael.
About five years ago, she got a call from Jerry Lewis’ secretary, which is how she found herself in the icon’s Las Vegas office. At that point, there was no script, no composer, just the idea that Lewis wanted to create a musical from his 1963 film "The Nutty Professor." Lewis knew her Ethel Merman show and said he considered Blackhurst a 21st-century Kathleen Freeman, the actress who had played second-banana comedy roles as maids and secretaries throughout her career, including Miss Lemon in "The Nutty Professor."
Over the years, the idea grew into a 2012 Nashville production, with music by Hamlisch ("A Chorus Line") and book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes ("Curtains"). Hamlisch died during the production, which made the sweet reviews even sweeter. A Nashville reviewer opined that Blackhurst, in her second-banana role, redefined the worn-out term of "showstopper," "socking across the number with Ziegfeld-worthy pizazz as the character practically swims in hunky chorus boys," prompting "such a torrent of cheers that the show literally can’t go on for a few moments. … Every second banana deserves such a moment atop the sundae," wrote Jim Ridley in Scene magazine.
Producers still hope to take the show to Broadway, and Blackhurst’s name is still attached to the project. "It all comes down to Jerry Lewis being my champion, which seems like an impossible sentence. But there. I said it," Blackhurst says, with a laugh.
And now, Blackhurst has aged into character roles, "since my character years are genuinely here," she says. She’s performed character parts in regional productions: Mama Morton on her home turf in PTC’s "Chicago" in 2006, and Rose in Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre’s "Gypsy" in 2012, and Dolly Levi in Goodspeed Opera House’s "Hello, Dolly!" in 2013.
"If the musical theater world worked like the opera world, I would be booked for Roses and Dolly Levi into 2017," Blackhurst says. "I try to stay very Zen about it. Who they really want all the time is Bette Midler."
Those stories and more are likely to come up when Blackhurst talks to theater students during master classes at the U. and during her concert. "Ultimately, we could probably call it: ‘Everything I know in life I learned from musical theater,’ " Blackhurst says, laughing, on the phone, on her way to another concert, another show.