Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame

Using one woman’s extraordinary story – and photo album – Onalea Gilbertson’s beautiful song cycle was a vivacious celebration of a exceptional life. Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame was first performed in the 2011 New York Music Theatre Festival.

The music weaves through interviews with Blanche, Gilbertson’s grandmother and the titular character, and the lyrics interpret different moments of her life as photos flash on screen. The theme varies from romance to aging to war, touching briefly and poignantly on each. These ingredients made for a lush soundscape that flowed flawlessly from song to song. At the performance I saw, several audience members left in tears.

click to tickets to Blanche: The Bittersweete Life of a Prairie Dame

None of this would have been possible without Gilbertson, who shines not only as a composer and creator, but a vocalist as well. She sings each piece with a powerful soprano, easily switching styles and feelings. Her charisma and sparkle were on display in “Weekend Parties,” swirling around in a red dress and sipping wine, whereas a more vulnerable side showed in songs like “After the War” and “Another Night Fall.” In one she notes, “I remember loving you.” Simply put, that’s how I felt about Gilbertson’s mesmerizing performance.

She was accompanied by three talented instrumentalists, who greatly balanced and complemented the show. In particular, Brian Sanders deftly wielded the cello in “Ballad of Bill.” The three musicians represented various men in Blanche’s life, a concept that fit into the songs perfectly.

The stage was laid out simply, with vintage laundry and cooking items strewn around. The focus was on the photographs, which were projected periodically and enriched the show greatly. The stage served as a fantastic playground to emphasize Gilbertson and the musicians, giving them room to play.

One song has Gilbertson crooning, “Blanche, you’re one hell of a girl!” And there’s one hell of a show in the Warehouse, one that really can’t afford to be missed. Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame will be gone in a short few weeks, but the pictures and words from this outstanding performance will stick around in your head for a long time.

Blanche: The Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame has 5 performances, ending July 26, 2012, at Warehouse, 645 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets

  Julia rates this 5 out of 5 making it a Pick of the Fringe!

Julia Katz About Julia Katz

Julia Katz is a director, producer, and critic. Most recently, she directed Refresh: Stories of Love, Sex, and the Internet at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and 59E59 Theaters, which was called "an inventive, thoughtful examination of the modern cyber morals that affect us all" by The Stage. She is the artistic director of Critical Point Theatre, an ensemble dedicated to collective generation and innovative storytelling. As a critic, she has written for The Washington Post, DC Theatre Scene, Fringe Review, and more. Julia currently lives in Manhattan with her partner and two devilish cats, where she makes her living writing freelance and teaching theatre and dance.

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