note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Blanche Calloway … Chris Calloway
Piano … David Alan Bunn
Bass … Frank Abraham
If you missed the Huntington’s COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY, a bio-musical about jazz singer Alberta Hunter, BLANCHE & HER JOY BOYS is a satisfying alternative. Produced by New Rep in partnership with Barrington Stage Company, BLANCHE tells the story of Blanche Calloway (1902-78), who made a name for herself first as a vocalist in the 1920s and then as one of the first female band leaders; she was eclipsed by her brother and protégé, Cab, among others, and went into decline when jazz evolved into swing and more and more white musicians come on board; she later discovered and groomed Ruth Brown into becoming a major rhythm-and-blues singer of the 1950s. Mark St. Germain’s script is more timeline than drama and concentrates on Ms. Calloway’s battles with her patrician mother and her unlucky streak with men rather than on her artistry and her struggle to stay afloat in a (music) man’s world. Nor has the historical landscape been set down convincingly: aside from a darkly amusing clash with the law when Ms. Calloway and her Joy Boys tour the Deep South, Mr. St. Germain gently, tastefully, steers us away from unpleasant thoughts (including Ms. Calloway’s bout with breast cancer). Great art, of course, is timeless when it touches upon universal truths but it is also created in certain times and certain environments: in Ms. Calloway’s case, it was segregated America; aside from a few broken hearts, Mr. St. Germain’s Blanche reaches a ripe old age remarkably scar-free.
Fortunately, Blanche is played by her real-life niece, Chris Calloway (daughter of Cab), a noted singer herself. A warm, outgoing performer of “a certain age”, Ms. Calloway plays all of BLANCHE’s characters with charm and gusto; Time has dried and thinned her singing voice but it remains a remarkable instrument, never cracking or souring, and she is as equally at home with a silken love song as she is with a wail from the heart. (The segregated past missing from Mr. St. Germain’s script is there in Ms. Calloway’s face, her bones, her dry good humor --- the last, the sign of a survivor) Ms. Calloway’s stamina is to be commended: at the performance I attended, the predominantly white audience politely sat and clapped as if at a symphony, causing Ms. Calloway to go several extra miles to ensure they were having a good time; ironically, only when Blanche began to suffer in Act Two did they put some heart into their applause. BLANCHE & HER JOY BOYS is a celebration of a woman’s life and her music, with the accent on “celebration”; so, please: check your reserve, and your pity, at the door.