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Billy Stritch & Klea Blackhurst: Dreaming of a Song: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael

It’s been a busy 2008 for the multitalented kid from Sugar Land, Texas, now well into his second decade as the uncrowned prince of Manhattan jazz-cabaret society. The year began for Billy Stritch with the release of the superb Sings Mel Tormé which, remarkably, managed to cause barely a ripple. Next, to significantly greater fanfare, came Sunday in New York, his second fine pairing with musical theatre icon Christine Ebersole.

Now, the seemingly indefatigable singer/pianist/songwriter has teamed with seismic diva-in-training Klea Blackhurst, whose one-woman tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, has been wowing audiences and critics since 2001. As musical director and sole arranger, Stritch shapes a marvelously comprehensive tour of the Hoagy Carmichael songbook, reminding us that there was a whole lot more to the lanky lad from Bloomington than the romantic masterpieces “Star Dust,” “Skylark” and “Heart and Soul.”

Where Stritch and Ebersole combine as smoothly and effervescently as champagne and crème de cassis, Stritch and Blackhurst are more like aged rum blended with 100-proof tequila. Blackhurst has the pipes to rival Merman’s machine gun delivery, but is distinctly, welcomingly, softer around the edges than the iron-sided Broadway legend. She and Stritch prove exceptionally good at navigating the many novelty tunes that numbered among Carmichael’s biggest successes, including “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” (a mid-’40s chart-topper for Betty Hutton), “When Love Goes Wrong” (written for Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell for the 1953 film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), the playfully suggestive “Two Sleepy People” and the Oscar-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”

But Blackhurst is also aces at selling a ballad, as she proves with solo turns on “How Little We Know” and “The Nearness of You.” And, lest we forget how captivating Stritch can be on his own, he offers up incandescent readings of “Georgia on My Mind” and “Star Dust” before bouncing through the bebop-meets-Beethoven playfulness of “The Old Music Master.”

Originally Published