There's Something About Klea: The Nutty Professor's BLACKHURST Brings 'Miss Lemon' To Life

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There's just something about KLea Blackhurst: The very first moment you meet her you know you're gonna like her and that, given the chance to perform for you, she's sure to wow you, to put you in your place, to make you fall in love with her. Consider yourself forewarned.

Blackhurst is in Nashville with the rest of the company of actors, dancers, musicians, techies, stagehands and the army of other theater artists necessary to bring The Nutty Professor Musical to life on the stage of the James K. Polk Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Playing the role of Miss Lemon, the devoted –and lovestruck-secretary to the dean of the college where one Professor Julius Kelp toils diligently in his chemistry lab, it's a role tailor-made for Blackhurst, who is a bold, brassy, ballsy kind of dame that audiences love and musical theater has venerated since the first time a character fitting that description strode upon the stage.

For Blackhurst, The Nutty Professor represents a lifelong dream coming true in real time: "My dream has always been to be in a big Broadway musical," she confides. "And now it may be coming true."

It's a dream she's nurtured since she was a little girl. At the age of 10, KLea Blackhurst-a precociously talented youngster in Salt Lake City-knew she wanted to be on the stage, to entertain audiences and to become larger-than-life characters.

Besides the acclaim that could very well accompany her star-making turn in The Nutty Professor, she's probably best known for Everything the Traffic Will Allow, her tuneful tribute to Ethel Merman (another of the theater's venerated bold, brassy and ballsy broads) that has earned her countless accolades, including the inaugural Special Achievement Award presented by Time Out New York magazine (Talkin' Broadway.com named the recording of her show "one of the top ten show albums of 2002"). Since then, her peripatetic career has taken her all over the world, celebrating pop music and show tunes-the standards that audiences clamor for-winning laudatory reviews and legion of fans. Hers is certainly a star on the rise.

Blackhurst's resume boasts a wide range of roles, including Mama Morton in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of Chicago; the dual roles of Bernice/Marilyn in the off-Broadway production of Bingo; Nails O'Reilly Duquesne in Red, Hot and Blue at San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon; Sally Adams in Call Me Madam, also at 42nd Street Moon; Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven; Debbie in the original off-Broadway production of Oil City Symphony; Rennabelle in Radio Gals Off Broadway at the John Houseman Theatre; and the role of Hippolyta in By Jupiter in the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series.

Her current role, which she describes as "perfect," can be traced back some five years or so ago to a telephone call from Jerry Lewis himself.

"I got a telephone call from Jerry Lewis, inviting me to a meeting with him in Las Vegas about an upcoming project," Blackhurst explains. "So I went to Vegas and we talked about The Nutty Professor Musical and he told me he wanted me to play Miss Lemon."

At the time, The Nutty Professor Musical was but a dream in the overly active brains of Lewis and leading man Michael Andrew, who had approached his idol with the idea a few years before, and executive producer Ned McLeod. But as that idea germinated among those creative thinkers, Lewis began reaching out, to build the team that would best serve the project-and the people who would be best served by the musical itself-relying on handshake deals to bring the team together.

"He told me he didn't have a timeline yet, so we shook hands and agreed we'd work together and I left Vegas," she says.

That's a story you hear time-after-time when talking to the creative group of artists who have come together to bring The Nutty Professor Musical to life: composer/lyricist Marvin Hamlisch, the man who has a Pulitzer, a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Grammy Award all his own, tells a very similar story that ended in a handshake deal to work together.

When the word came to Blackhurst that the project was indeed moving forward and would be playing its tryout run at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center, she knew that the time was "right."

"Projects like this move in terms of theater seasons and what time works out best," she reasons.

"We're so thrilled to be here in Nashville for this show," she says, her winning personality apparent in all she does. "This is such a wonderful musical."

There's Something About Klea: The Nutty Professor's BLACKHURST Brings 'Miss Lemon' To Life

"The first thing Jerry [who is directing the musical, his first foray into directing a Broadway-bound show] told me was that I am playing the Kathleen Freeman role and I was so honored to be compared to her," she explains.

Freeman, who played Miss Millie Lemon in the 1963 classic film comedy, is the longtime movie, television and stage actress who became known throughout her career as the perfect foil for scores of leading men and women, who was last seen on Broadway in The Full Monty. The thing about Kathleen Freeman-which one day might be said of Blackhurst-is that she had the kind of face (in fact the kind of career) that results in you knowing her even if you don't realize it. She epitomized the term "character actor."

When she was told that by her director, KLea Blackhurst was able to quickly hone in on her own character of Miss Lemon in The Nutty Professor Musical, thus making the rehearsal process a whole lot more fun.

"I'm so happy about this whole thing," she says. "It's an absolute thrill to be on this ride."

And there is an absence of ego during the process, despite the show's stellar pedigree and the assembled star power of its creative team, she contends. Rather, The Nutty Professor Musical represents a collaborative effort that will pay off for audiences.

Insofar as the plot and her character of Miss Lemon are concerned, she says, "Rupert opens it up and he told me at first that Miss Lemon is in love with the dean (whom she idolizes) and also with Buddy Love. He's upped the ante with his script and there are some truly wonderful moments on that stage."

She remembers watching actress Marissa McGowan (who plays the love interest of both nerdy Professor Julius Kelp and his sexy alter ego Buddy Love) first performing the ballad written for her by Hamlisch: "My spine tingled as I watched her perform it," she admits. "It's a spectacular moment in the show."

"Spectacular" is also how she describes JoAnn Hunter's choreography for the production, which during a press preview showed off the cast's particular athleticism and grace.

"This show-the whole process-is one of the most thrilling things I've ever done," Blackhurst reflects. "And I am loving every moment of it."

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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