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Drury Lane debuts 'Hazel' musical inspired by '60s sitcom

March 25, 2016 at 10:38 AM

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New York actress Klea Blackhurst couldn't be more grateful to be back at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. After wowing critics and crowds as Madame Rose in Drury Lane's 2012 revival of "Gypsy," Blackhurst now creates the title leading role in the world premiere of "Hazel: A Musical Maid in America."

"I was so happy to see those chandeliers again," Blackhurst said of the theater. "It is my favorite place to work. I can say that without question. I'm so glad that this has come along to put us back together."

"Hazel, A Musical Maid in America"
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111,

Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday (no matinees March 31 or April 7), 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (3 and 7 p.m. May 8); March 31 through May 29

Tickets: $43-$58 previews through April 3; $45-$60 regular run

Fans of 1960s sitcoms will remember "Hazel" with award-winning actress Shirley Booth in the title role of a lovably meddling maid to the Baxter family. But Blackhurst and "Hazel" book writer Lissa Levin both stress that the character originated in the 1940s in Tim Key's single-panel comics in The Saturday Evening Post.

"Hazel was such a different kind of character for a leading lady that I was intrigued," said Levin.

Predominantly known as a TV writer and producer whose credits include "Cheers," "Mad About You" and "WKRP in Cincinnati," Levin credits lyricist Chuck Steffan and composer Ron Abel for coming up with the idea of theatricalizing "Hazel." Abel and Levin previously collaborated on a musical called "Twist of Fate," and he brought her aboard for "Hazel."

"We're approaching this in TV terms almost as a lost episode. It's the pilot you never saw," said Levin, likening the musical to a prequel in the same way as "Wicked" imagined the origins of "Wizard of Oz" characters.

"Let's see what it was like when Hazel first started working for the Baxters," Levin said. "And when the adversarial relationship between her and George Baxter began and why it began."

Levin and her collaborators also wanted to make sure there was a modern sensibility to "Hazel" by contextualizing some views and events of its 1960s setting. For instance, much is made of women trying to gain a foothold in the workforce by giving Dorothy Baxter a job. Other characters also bemoan the way America seems to be losing its prominent place in the world, but in relation to the space race with the former Soviet Union.

It's remarkable to Blackhurst that "Hazel's" creators started writing without a specific performer in mind. So she is grateful to actress and director Lucie Arnaz for recommending Blackhurst to star in developmental readings of the show after the two met at memorial concerts dedicated to the late songwriter Marvin Hamlisch.

"I have to give all the credit to Lucie Arnaz for putting two and two together," Blackhurst said. "It was a perfect fit."

When asked if she was concerned about living up to Booth's performance as Hazel, Blackhurst pointed out that there are probably as many people who are unfamiliar with the sitcom as there are viewers who still have fond memories of it. Blackhurst also stressed that she was already a huge fan of Booth, citing her take on the role of Dolly Levi in the 1950s film version of "The Matchmaker."

"I'm not in any way doing an impersonation or a replica (of Booth)," Blackhurst said. "I think as long as I show up with a pure heart about it, I think it's enough of that character in the language and in the personality that I really think that just me coming to the role is pretty close."