BLANCHE: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 17, 2012
Prepare yourself, if you are here just for an enjoyable hour of soulful singing accompanying you down someone's memory lane: sometimes a performance can be so deceptively simple, you don't fully appreciate what it's doing to you until you found yourself reeling from its emotional punch.
Such is the power of BLANCHE: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame—what starts out as a loving tribute to her late grandmother by songwriter/performer Onalea Gilbertson unfolds into a grand quest for our collective memory gathering and reflection. So intimate yet sweeping, the personal history becomes epic.
We are introduced to Blanche through real video footage and photographs as well as audio recordings. What brings her story to life, however, is Gilbertson's embodiment of this colorful and spirited woman. She sings about the major events that had stayed with Blanche to the very end: the men she loved and who loved her; the dancing and laughing days before the Depression hit her home on the Alberta, Canada prairie; the World War II experience that shattered the men in her family; and how all this had looked to her as she turned her final pages.
Written by Gilbertson, Morag Northey, and Jonathan Lewis, the songs are rendered with exquisite expressiveness, showcasing Gilbertson's range and flowing from jazzy to ballads to folk. She (on piano) is joined by three immensely skillful musicians: Josh Henderson on violin, Eric William Love on cello, and Eric Richardson on guitar. They also play three men in Blanche's life, lending a dramatic flair to the luscious music. The instrumental performances are so immediate they never recede to the background.
The most haunting and powerful is the war through Blanche's eyes—and the four musicians' full-throttle depiction: "... landed on the first day of the war... they were the lucky ones, watching their friends die." The crescendo is shattering.
In later years, finding herself in a nursing home and a wheelchair, Blanche, who had lived fully and "never told her granddaughter to let off the liquor," could not help but feel trapped: "Before wrinkles claim your face, say what you want to say... At the end of the day, getting old doesn't pay."
But from Blanche's own mouth, we hear the good and the sorrowful alike, often with a throaty laugh: "It's strange, you know, all the things that happened to my life." This wild dame's pulsing life-force seems so strong, it makes the history matter and so very personal. She will touch you.