When Klea Blackhurst and Billy Stritch raise their voices in song, they're like two trumpets in a big-band brass section. In their current Metropolitan Room gig, "Dreaming of a Song: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael," they often scat like a couple of souped-up Harry Jameses. Their bracing metallic sound is emphasized in their consonants and, especially their vowels. Blackhurst's vibrant "o"'s and Stritch's jangling "e"'s are cheerful alarm clocks.
But the sounds they emit are only a part of their invigorating tribute to Carmichael, an American composer who should always be included among the top 20 American popular tunesmiths, but hardly ever is. Carmichael's tunes sounded as if they always existed. His "Stardust" (lyrics by Mitchell Parish) is one of the highest ASCAP royalty earners of all time. One of the most frequently performed songs in cabaret is his "Skylark" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer). "Heart and Soul" (lyrics by Frank Loesser), as Stritch and Blackhurst reiterate, is one of the most ubiquitous party ditties ever unleashed on a ditty-hungry public. As the two complete their version of this latter standard, sly-fox Stritch inserts a bar or two of the familiar party-piano version.
When Blackhurst claims that the Carmichael strains make her think of a screen door slamming shut while bees buzz around, she pinpoints on his appeal. Old rocking chair got him and rocked him into his myriad commercial lullabies.
This new Blackhurst-Stritch collaboration is absolutely smashing. The duo are so right for the material and each other in a good-friends-together way that it comes as a surprise that they hadn't thunk up the program idea themselves. They were talked into it by Noel Coward(!) maven Barry Day.
No matter. They've taken to the material like, well, an old rocking chair to a porch. When they let fly with "Up a Lazy River" (lyrics by Carmichael and Sidney Arodin) with Blackhurst on ukulele — "Looks like you left your guitar out in the rain," Stritch cracks — the only possible response is a wide-growing-wider grin. They have a ball making the most of Mercer's adorably colloquial words to the 1951 Oscar-winning "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening."
When Stritch solos on "Georgia on My Mind" (lyrics by Stuart Gorell) and later on "Stardust," he shows a previously untapped depth of passion. Blackhurst's in-ones on "Skylark" and "The Nearness of You" are more in the clarion band singer mode (think Helen O'Connell) and connect in a less personal manner.
The pair's conversational give-and-take is the breezy kind patrons eat up with a spoon. I won't say that Stritch's new collaboration is better than his teaming with Marilyn Maye or Christine Ebersole, but every it's every measure as good and deserves many more hearings — and not just on the captivating Carmichael repertoire. He and Blackhurst should give other composer a whirl.
Presented by and at The Metropolitan Room, 34 W. 22nd St., NYC. (212) 206-0440 Remaining peformances: Fri. Oct. 17 at 9:45 p.m.; Tue. Nov. 18, 7 p.m.; Wed. Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 20-21 at 9:45 p.m.