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“It feels so great to bring this home to Calgary,” declares Onalea Gilbertson, Blanche’s creator and performer, who, as a resident of the Orange Lofts on 8th Ave., just happens to be a bona fide EV celebrity. “I was really nervous, to be honest, but I am so glad to be doing this now.”
Gilbertson created Blanche: the Bittersweet Life of a Wild Prairie Dame as a tribute to her own grandmother, a vibrant woman who embodied the spirit of this province. Fascinated by a photo album she found while fetching her grandmother a sweater, Gilbertson began asking her about the young people she saw laughing and carrying on in those old Depression-era photos. Her life, it turns out, was the stuff musicals are made of.
The show, a poetic song cycle done cabaret style, is presented by Lunchbox Theatre for High Performance Rodeo. High Performance Rodeo, Calgary's International Festival of the Arts, runs January 3 through February 3. With 22 events happening at 13 venues throughout downtown Calgary, it's the largest festival of its kind in western Canada. Lunchbox Theatre, with its up close and intimate stage, has its own bragging rights - the longest running lunchtime theatre in the world. “Lunchbox Theatre is such a good fit for this production,” says Gilbertson. “I see a lot of elderly people in wheelchairs in the audience, and I feel like I am telling not just Blanche's story but their stories as well.”
Against a backdrop of vintage photographs and home movies projected onto a sheet drying on a clothesline in the prairie wind, Gilbertson sings the life of the belle of Hughenden, Alberta. With musical accompaniment by Jonathan Lewis, Brian Sanders and Jeff Gladstone – who also step into the roles of the men in Blanche's life – Gilbertson performs, sometimes as Blanche, sometimes simply as herself singing her grandmother’s story. Gram Blanche's gravelly voice, recorded in interviews, brings another layer of intimacy, as the minutiae of her gutsy, raucous and sometimes heart-breaking life unfold in song. She was a teenager who posed for photos in her boyfriend's suits, a widow at 23 who married her late husband's younger brother, and a mother of five whose husband worked in the oil fields and who would return home to boisterous parties. “We partied every damn weekend,” Blanche sings joyously.
At a recent performance, in the line-up of mostly seniors awaiting entrance, one man joked “there seems to be a preponderance of noisy women here.” Blanche Leadley Gilbertson would no doubt have felt right at home.