Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Prairie Dame
January 14 – 26, 2013
As I walked into the theatre to experience Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Prairie Dame, I couldn’t help but notice that the production was selling CD’s of the show’s seventeen original songs. As I walked out of the theatre sixty-four minutes later I couldn’t help but wonder who on earth would buy a recording of some of the most lyrically atrocious and musically discordant songs I have had the displeasure of experiencing. As I couldn’t wait to get out of there fast enough I actually have no idea if any sales were made, and if so, why. Nor do I know why this biographical show of a somewhat remarkable life, made utterly unremarkably uninteresting by both song and structure has been getting such affection. All I knew for certain was that this fondness was not going feature in my review.
The show is the creation of Calgary actress Onalea Gilbertson and is a love letter/homage to her Alberta-born grandmother Blanche. Gilbertson got the idea to explore her grandmother’s past when she moved her into a nursing home, and as part of the move uncovered an old photo album of Blanche’s that documented her life. The show gives the audience snippets of this life, told only through song and very poor quality recordings of Blanche’s own raspy and sometimes unintelligible voice. Gilbertson, playing both a young Blanche and herself along with three onstage musicians who do turns as the men in Blanche’s life, lurch along from one snapshot moment to another hoping that the lack of character development will be overlooked due to a running loop of old photographs and emotionally manipulative numbers.
Trust me; I’m not without heartstrings to be pulled. And if given the chance to really connect with Blanche, I might have cared that her first love froze to death or that her husband was missing in action in WW2 or that she doesn’t find much to laugh about these days as she bides her time before death in a care facility. All of these things could have had the dramatic and emotional heft that they deserved. But when put into lyrics that were obviously taken from Blanche’s own words (and let me clear, Sondheim she ain’t) and put to atonal or simply unremarkable music, the empathy flies out the window and all we are left with is Glibertson’s decent piano playing and strong voice. A voice that when rid of the constraints of someone else’s thoughts and words can actually be quite moving. For one small number, Gilbertson sings of the last time she saw her grandmother in the home. It was a beautifully expressed set of feelings and the only moment in the show where things felt genuinely poignant.
That moment however was fleeting, as inexplicably, immediately after this number and about three-quarters into the show, Gilbertson and her director Rachel Avery decide to switch from a linear narrative to time shifting. Again, I have no issue with this type of storytelling. But to all of a sudden jump back and forth in time more than halfway into a show only served to make the flow feel even clunkier than it already was. Kids are spoken of without explanation as to when they came into the picture. Other family members’ names get tossed out without context or care to make us want to understand. And a strange marriage situation gets glossed over in an unsatisfying manner. By the time the last number was sung and the final image of Blanche was projected, I felt like I had spent an hour with characters I might have liked to know more about but was blocked from doing so at every turn. I suspect that this isn’t the “bittersweet” reaction they were hoping for.
For the guys – Yes Blanche is a tough dame, or at least her voice sounds like she is. But with only thin details, there is no reason for you to relate to her. SKIP IT
For the girls – Sure we can all empathize what life was like for a woman in Blanche’s time and she does seem like a practical fun-loving woman. But we never really get the emotion behind the facts and that renders the empathy mostly hollow. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – Gilbertson has a lovely strong voice and she obviously has a great love for Blanche. But the music won’t thrill you and the story leaves a lot of holes. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theater junkie – Horrid structure, contrived direction, lackluster lyrics and music. So little done with so much. SKIP IT