June 26--History is repeating itself at the Goodspeed Opera House -- sort of.
Actress and cabaret artist Klea Blackhurst, who has been wowing audiences for the past decade in an Ethel Merman tribute show, is getting the chance to star in "Hello, Dolly!," a musical that Merman famously rejected before it debuted in 1964 and became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history.
At first, Ethel's loss was Carol Channing's gain, but several years later, Merman saw the error of her ways and agreed to star as a replacment in "Hello, Dolly!" just before it closed.
"She turned it down right at the beginning," Blackhurst pointed out during a recent rehearsal break.
"But you have to remember she never had a flop and I think she had reached a point in her career where she didn't want to get stuck in a hit," the performer added of the two-year contracts that were standard for musicals back then.
Over the past 50 years, the many virtues of "Hello, Dolly!" have become hard-wired into musical theater lovers' DNA, from the great Jerry Herman score to the warm and witty book by Michael Stewart about a turn-of-the-last-century matchmaker who finally finds her match in the Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder.
"I've been struck by how well written it is and how beautifully it holds up," Blackhurst said. "It's just the quickest and wittiest thing."
"Hello, Dolly!" starts performances in East Haddam on Friday, June 28, and will be running at the Goodspeed Opera House through Sept. 8.
The role of Dolly Levi is one that Blackhurst has wanted to play for several years, but the stars never aligned when she auditioned for past productions.
"This has definitely been on my dream list," the actress said. "There were a couple of high profile productions (in the past) where I really prepared for the auditions and really desperately wanted the part.
"I had my heart broken," she added. "But now I am so glad I never played the role before and that this is my production. It is where I was meant to be and how I was meant to do it."
Goodspeed has lined up a terrific cast of Broadway pros to surround Blackhurst, with Tony Sheldon (the Tony-nominated star of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") as Horace and Ashley Brown (the original star of Broadway's "Mary Poppins") as Irene Molloy, the beautiful hat shop owner who gets drawn into Dolly's scheming.
Blackhurst's performer's belief in timing -- and what is meant to be -- goes back to a zen moment she had in Manhattan several years ago when she was rushing off to an appointment.
"I stopped on the street to help someone with directions and when I got down to the subway platform the A train was just pulling out," she recalled.
Instead of feeling frustrated, "A calm came over me and I said to myself, 'That's not my train.' I try to keep tapping into that feeling."
With her great comic spirit and powerhouse voice, Blackhurst was never a performer meant to be part of the ensemble in an Andrew Lloyd Webber pop opera or "Les Miserables."
"I went for years without jobs and I thought maybe it was time to redirect my life. But I wasn't ready to be done," she said of deciding to write and perform the Merman show in 2001.
"I did that and got such a positive response. I wasn't just sitting in my living room for 20 years complaining. Having the chance to form a relationship between me and the audience in that show was such a gift," she said.
The success of the cabaret show -- which she brought to Westport two years ago -- opened casting doors, allowing her the chance to star in "Gypsy" and other musicals off Broadway and in regional theaters.
Now, to play Dolly at the nationally renowned Goodspeed is another affirmation.
"Goodspeed has never done 'Dolly' before and to be chosen to do it here is such a positive reinforcement," she said.
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Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam. Friday, June 28-Sunday, Sept. 8. 74.50-$32.50. 860-873-8668, www.goodspeed.org.
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