From the Spring 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

Dury Lane has been a mainstay of Chicago theater for 60 years and is showing no signs of letting up as they move into their 2016-2017 season. Known for producing beloved musical theater classics including recent productions of Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, and Les Miserables, Drury Lane is beginning to shift their focus to include more new works in addition to the old favorites.

For artistic director William Osetek, this shift in focus makes a lot of sense not only for the theater but for Drury Lane's dedicated patrons. “Over the last 60 years at Drury Lane, we have cultivated a deeply loyal audience who choose to see 5 shows a year—they are a savvy, discerning audience and their demographic in many ways mirrors a Broadway audience in their sophistication.”

Indeed, the new works being produced are pieces that are (hopefully) Broadway bound. Having savvy audiences that can give collaborators all-important feedback is one vital piece of the puzzle, but Drury Lane has even more going for it beyond a loyal group of theatergoers. Explains Osetek, “Most regional houses have shorter runs, often 6 weeks or less.  Our productions run for a minimum of 8 weeks, which allows a longer period of gestation to explore and dissect what the production becomes.”

Certainly, producing new work has some challenges that are different from mounting more established work. Says Osetek, “Probably the biggest challenge is the fluctuating nature of the endeavor as the script and score continue to be adjusted, polished and perfected.  Consider, for example, that the set is designed before rehearsals begin—but new script pages arrive every day, sometimes with no locale for the intended new scene, forcing a continual revision.  It is extremely difficult to pin down something that is in a constant state of flux. But that, of course, is also what is thrilling about it.”

Drury Lane's most recent foray into creating a new musical was last season's adaptation of the film favorite Beaches. Previously produced at Washington, DC's Signature Theatre, Beaches settled in at Drury Lane and successfully worked through revisions of its book and score, ultimately receiving a fair amount of acclaim from Chicago audiences and critics.

For Drury Lane's next project, director of New Works Laura Stanczyk has chosen Hazel—from composer Ron Able and lyricist Chuck Steffan. The musical, based on Ted Key's Saturday Evening Post comic and the 1960s sitcom starring the legendary Shirley Booth, has been kicking around New York for a while now but really got its legs after Lucy Arnaz directed workshops in October of 2014 and April 2015.

From those modest beginnings, Hazel is quickly transitioning into a production as big as the beloved character's personality. Klea Blackhurst has filled Hazel's sensible shoes since that first workshop with Arnaz and will step back into them at Drury Lane next season. Known for her Ethel Merman tributes and a fantastic turn as Mama Rose in Drury Lane's 2012 production of Gypsy, Blackhurst is, according to all involved, a natural for the role of the loveable, wise-cracking maid.

Blackhurst explains that the role ultimately came to her partly because of a Marvin Hamlisch tribute concert that had her sharing a dressing room with an influential artist. “I spent three days with the Pittsburg Symphony, and I shared a dressing room with Lucy Arnaz.” As it turns out, the women hit it off, chatting about everything under the sun including their mothers. Blackhurst laughs, “Every once in a while, I'd think, 'Oh, my...we're talking about Lucille Ball.'”

Blackhurst enjoyed their time together without realizing her connection with Arnaz was about to result in much more than a lovely dressing room companion.  “I didn't realize that from those times we had been together, she went to Ron (Able) and Chuck (Steffan) and said, 'I found your Hazel.'”

The writing team was initially reluctant to consider Blackhurst for the role. They knew her from her work on Ethel Merman tributes and pigeonholed her as someone with too brassy an edge for the role of big-hearted Hazel. Once again, Arnaz stepped in. As Blackhurst understands it, she encouraged Able and Steffan to put their reservations aside and join her at one of Blackhurst's concerts of Marvin Hamlisch tunes a few days later. Sure enough, they were sold.

Says Blackhurst, “They immediately came up and hired me to do a demo of three of the songs (from Hazel).” The project snowballed from there. She adds, “I owe it all to Lucy. That's for sure. And a funny, weird way.”

Blackhurst is absolutely thrilled to be attached to this project. Though she's gotten to play the title role in plenty of old chestnuts like Hello, Dolly!, Blackhurst enthusiastically explains, “I've been preparing my whole life to get to have the first crack at a title role. It's a major, major dream of mine.”

Drury Lane is doing pretty much everything they can to make certain Hazel does, in fact, become a great big success. In addition to supporting the show with the usual fantastic-looking sets and costumes, they've hired director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse. Known for his outstanding work on Broadway productions of Hairspray, On the Town, and Gigi as well as NBC's Smash, Bergasse is an Emmy Award winner, a Tony nominee and a hot commodity.

Though he is a seasoned, in-demand professional, Bergasse is enjoying a new challenge with Hazel. He says, “This is my first time directing a world premiere musical, so that’s a new challenge for me. I have a good deal of experience as a choreographer, but now I’m learning to use a new set of skills.”

All of the folks attached to the project are also discovering plenty of new things to love about Hazel. The cartoon began in the 1940s, the television series was a 1960s staple, and the consensus seems to be that this new incarnation of everybody's favorite maid has plenty to offer contemporary audiences.

Explains Bergasse, “I love this musical because it’s about familial relationships and understanding each other during changing times. It’s also about women moving into the workforce, equality of the sexes and standing up for what you believe in—stuff everyone can relate to.”

Blackhurst concurs, “It's set in 1966, but it's all very contemporary. All great art is contemporary.”

And while Hazel has a fair amount of nostalgia for audiences who are fans of the classic TV show, Blackhurst is certain audiences who aren't familiar with Shirley Booth's iconic portrayal will have no problem connecting with the new musical: “Whether you have a history with Hazel or you're sitting down with her for the first time...I think you're going to love her.”

Whether Hazel ends up taking her feather duster to the Great White Way remains to be seen, but all eyes are on the work to be done right here in Chicago for the moment anyway.

“It’s really important for us to focus on the Drury Lane production right now,” says Bergasse. “It’s challenging to bring a new musical to life for the first time. We have a great deal of work ahead of us. I’m not thinking about anything beyond a successful opening night this spring in Chicago.”

Likewise, Blackhurst is excited to get down to work on making her lifelong dream of originating a title role a reality, and she's confident that everyone involved is going above and beyond: “I can't see a single thing they could be doing to give it a better chance.”

Drury Lane Theatre is embarking on a new effort to present new, original (potentially Broadway-bound) productions this season (photo courtesy of Drury Lane Theatre).

Expanding Horizons

By expanding to original plays this season, Drury Lane Theatre is placing a bet on the lure of Broadway bound productions

By Leslie Price