Hip Shot: Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame
Wednesday, July 25, 10 p.m.
Thursday, July 26, 6 p.m.
They Say: "A theatrical concert about Blanche's memories told by her granddaughter; weaving through the Depression, WW2 and tragic lost love. A poignant mash-up of torch, folk and chamber music. 'Delicate, penetrating, captivating songs,' #13, 'Best Shows of 2011,' Huffington Post."
Rachel's Take: Blanche is a biographical musical about Blanche Leadlay Gilbertson (1915-2011) that captures the highs and lows of her remarkable, ordinary life with sweet music and a lot of romance. The all-sung show is interspersed with an AV scrapbook of Blanche telling her own story and projections of pictures from her life.
Blanche's granddaughter Onalea Gilbertson has created (with Morag Northey and Jonathan Lewis) this beautiful tribute to her grandmother, focusing mostly on Blanche's love life but also on the hard work and hardships that shaped her life.
The four-piece onstage band (Gilbertson on piano and vocals, Josh Henderson on violin, Eric Richardson on guitar, and Brian Sanders on cello) also create the scenes of the show. Gilbertson will begin a song singing and playing piano, then get up and dance, and one of the musicians will enact the man Blanche sings about even as he plays, a dynamic and nervy staging by Rachel Avery. So Gilbertson as Blanche will lean against Henderson, who plays the violin around her, encircling her in his arms. It's lovely.
The songs are lovely, too, folksy, romantic and spirited, with complicated harmonies. And as Blanche's life progresses, the songs start lightly reflecting the pop music of those years. I was surprised and impressed especially with an angry song about aging that slides towards rock and roll. Gilbertson's voice is beautiful, sweet and expressive through several singing styles, but was drowned out at times by the instruments.
Technical problems within the space seriously impaired my understanding of the plot. Whether the audio track or the sound system flubbed, I couldn't understand much of what recorded-real-life-older Blanche was saying. I also missed some of the wordy, fluid lyrics. I didn't catch everything that happened with Blanche and her men, who are put through some of life's crappiest things (hunger, death, POW camps). One of the men is only sung about, not played by a musician, which left me wondering how he fit in, and Gilbertson confusingly switches from first to second person and back when singing Blanche's story.
But the music and the movement and the love palpable throughout is all just gorgeous. The show's strengths are the simplicity of the design, the performers' easy chemistry, and the sweep of Blanche's story. We hear surprisingly little about her children, either in song or sound clip. Gilbertson is paying homage to her grandmother by brilliantly expressing everything else she was.
See It If: Polished indie musicals are your thing. Or you miss your grandma.
Skip It If: This all sounds too sappy.
DISCLOSURE: The author appears as an actor inThe Cloudism Project in this years Capital Fringe Festival.