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‘Hazel’ musical a mix of comic panel, classic TV series

March 29, 2016 at 10:41 AM

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To borrow the title of a Stephen Sondheim song: "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."

Of course the bawdy characters of ancient Rome who sang that number had someone very different in mind than Hazel Burke, the middle-aged bundle of energy whose innately warm-hearted, take-charge, common sensical and occasionally mischievous style first surfaced in Ted Key's single panel cartoon (which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post from 1943 to the magazine's demise in 1969, and then in King Features til 1993), and then became the toast of television from 1961-1966 — first on NBC, and then briefly on CBS — with Shirley Booth, who received two Emmy Awards for her portrayal, in the title role.

Now, Hazel, the live-in maid who worked for the comfortable middle-class suburban Baxter family — including George, a lawyer, his wife, Dorothy, an interior decorator, and their son, Harold (dubbed "Sport" by Hazel) — is getting ready to sing.

"Hazel, A Musical Maid in America" — with a score by Ron Abel and Chuck Steffan (music world veterans penning their first major musical), a book by Lissa Levin (whose TV credits include" Cheers," "Mad About You" and "WKRP in Cincinnati"), direction and choreography by Joshua Bergasse, and music direction by Roberta Duchak — is set for its world premiere April 6 at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre.

Klea Blackhurst, a cabaret favorite in New York who is known for channeling Ethel Merman (she also starred as Mama Rose in Drury Lane's 2012 revival of "Gypsy"), stars as Hazel, with Ken Clark as George and Summer Naomi Smart (just seen in "Far from Heaven" at Porchlight Music Theatre), as Dorothy.

When: Previews begin March 31;
opens April 6 and runs through May 29
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets: $45 – $60
Info: (630) 530-0111;

Bergasse, who grew up near Detroit, and began classes at his mother's dance school, arrived in New York in his 20s and danced in the original Broadway cast of "Hairspray," and in national tours of "Movin' Out" and "West Side Story." He won the 2012 Emmy Award for outstanding choreography for his work on NBC's "Smash," and was nominated for the 2015 Tony Award for best choreography for "On the Town" (his Broadway debut). "Hazel" marks his directorial debut.

"This musical is a mix of the comic panel and the TV series, and is a 'prequel' of sorts in that it shows how Hazel meets the Baxters," said Bergasse. "The original script for the show set it in Westchester [a New York bedroom community], but we've changed the setting to suburban Pennsylvania."

And while the whole project might seem downright vintage in many respects, Bergasse notes: "It's about family relationships in an era of change, when women were entering the work force in ever greater numbers. It's about navigating that change in the family dynamics, and how an outsider — Hazel — comes in and assists in the transition." (It is George, as you can imagine, who has some qualms about his wife embarking on her interior decorating career.)

"It is always difficult to find the right person to work as a live-in maid — someone you feel comfortable bringing into such an intimate environment," said Bergasse, whose family had a maid who did not "live in" when he was a kid, and who now has a housekeeper.

So just who is Hazel and what is her background?

"She comes from a large family in which she cared for her siblings, and early on she learned to fix things they didn't even know were wrong," said Bergasse. "She's in her 50s, has no husband or kids of her own, and just loves being a working gal and caring for people. We very much wanted to create our own Hazel, however, because you can't recreate Shirley Booth."

As for the music: "The show reflects the influences of the 1960s, especially the jazz style of the time, with some Motown sounds also part of the score. The dance styles of the 1960s will be part of the musical too. Of course as a choreographer I just always sees things visually to start."

Though he wasn't even born when "Hazel" first aired on TV, Bergasse, 43, has watched his share of episodes on YouTube.

"They provide a good study of the time period, especially in how men and women behaved with each other, with the man going out to work and the woman as a housewife. But I haven't necessarily fallen back on that. And yes, there is something of the white picket fence retro world here, but the human relationships are not all that different, including the one between the father and his young son."

So, the inevitable question looms: Is "Hazel" headed to Broadway? To be sure, Drury Lane would love to see that happen. Last month it named independent producer and casting director Laura Stanczyk to the newly created position of Director of New Works. Previously an out-of-state, behind-the-scenes collaborator with Drury Lane, she was instrumental in bringing both "Hazel" and last season's engagement of the new musical "Beaches" to the theater.

"Mostly it is just great to get away from the pressure of New York and be able to try something in a safe place," said Bergasse whose upcoming stage projects include Jason Robert Brown's "King Kong" and "Bull Durham."

Meanwhile, during rehearsals for "Hazel," Bergasse experienced a classic devastating Broadway experience. "Nerds," the new musical about the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for which he was the choreographer, was abruptly canceled just weeks before it was scheduled to begin performances, with financial troubles cited as the cause.

"The cast, the orchestra, the designers, the crew, the ushers all found themselves out of work overnight," said Bergasse.

Could that show possibly find its way to Drury Lane and then reboot for Broadway?

"There's been no talk about that," said Bergasse. "But it would be fun."