Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dukin' it Out

[This is my review of Klea Blackhurst's Taking a Chance on Love: Vernon Duke's Broadway for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

Klea Blackhurst says that when she started promoting her latest show, Taking a Chance on Love: Vernon Duke's Broadway, she expected the most common response would be "why Vernon Duke?" Instead it was "Vernon who?" Fame is, indeed, fleeting.

Born Vladimir Dukelsky in 1903 in Parafianovka, Belarus, Duke was a child prodigy who was admitted to the Kiev Conservatory at 11, studied with Reinhold Glière (of Red Poppy fame), and might have become an established Russian classical composer had not the 1918 revolution convinced his family that it was time to move to a more politically stable area of the world. By the 1920s Dukelsky was dividing his time between writing serious concert music in Paris and popular songs in New York. There the young George Gershwin, (with whom Dukelsky had become friends after being entranced by Gershwin's "Swanee"), suggested that Vernon Duke might be a better name for a Broadway songsmith.

Thus began the composer's remarkable dual career. While Vladimir Dukelsky composed the ballet Zephyr and Flora, the oratorio The End of St. Petersburg, and a concerto for piano, orchestra and soprano obbligato entitled Dédicaces, Vernon Duke wrote music and (occasionally) lyrics for shows with titles such as Banjo Eyes, The Lady Comes Across, Jackpot, a musical adaptation of Rain entitled Sadie Thompson and, in 1941, his sole Broadway hit Cabin in the Sky.

Today, Dukelsky's scores are rarely heard (although his name remains immortalized Ira Gershwin's lyric for Kurt Weill's "Tchaikovsky") and the shows Duke scored - with the possible exception of Cabin - are largely forgotten. Many of the songs from those shows, on the other hand, are standards. Among the certified hits in Ms. Blackhurst's program, for example, are: "April in Paris", "Autumn in New York", "I Like the Likes of You", "I Can't Get Started" and, most notably "Taking a Chance on Love".

That last one was a showstopper for Ethel Waters in Cabin. For Ms. Blackhurst at Savor this weekend it was something even better - a show continuer (assuming there is such a word).

That's because Ms. Blackhurst and her pianist/music director Michael Rice are experts in the art of building a fluid, varied program in which each song leads logically to the next and which, in the end, leaves you with a clear portrait of the object of her musical affection. There are no "showstoppers" for the simple reason that, even after a takes-your-breath-away ballad like "Sailing at Midnight" (from Sadie Thompson) or an upbeat rarity like "Dancing in the Streets" (with its startlingly contemporary-sounding wartime lyric) the show never stops. Were Mr. Duke still among the living, he would surely be gratified by this extraordinarily well-researched, consistently entertaining and delightfully informative overview of his life and work.

Reviewing Ms. Blackhurst's Ethel Merman tribute show back in 2002, I praised her energetic and upbeat stage presence, her clear, powerful voice, and effervescent style. I'm happy to report that the intervening years have not withered nor custom staled her infinite variety. Her vocal technique remains formidable (Dukelsky would have appreciated that), but it's always employed in the service of the music and lyrics rather than calling attention to itself with empty filigree.

In short, she still puts on one sockdolager of a show.

By the time you read this, of course, Klea Blackhurst's Cabaret at Savor appearance will already be over. Fortunately, all of the songs in Taking a Chance on Love are available on Ms. Blackhurst's 2005 Ghostlight CD Autumn in New York - without, alas, her lively commentary. To hear that, you'll have to locate her next live appearance - which you can do at her web site, .

Next at Savor: Jeff Harnar in an all-Cole Porter program April 2nd through 5th, 2008. For ticket information, call 314-531-0220 or visit on the web.