By Donna Herman
The New York Musical Festival is in full swing, fostering culturally and stylistically diverse new musicals by early-career artists. But don’t let the “early-career artists” designation fool you – all it means is that they’re not household names – yet. A perfect example is Miss Blanche Tells It All currently playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater through Sunday, July 16th. Set in the late 1960’s in a gay friendly bar in New Orleans, an intoxicated drag performer, Miss Blanche (Brian Charles Rooney), reveals more than originally intended. It’s a nuanced story and a tour de force performance by a consummate professional.
With a book by Jason Jacobs and music by Matthew C. Pritchard, and lyrics by both, the authors of Miss Blanche Tells It Al give full credit to Tennessee Williams for inspiration. Fans of Mr. Williams’ plays will recognize more than just the homage to “Streetcar Named Desire” in the stage name of “Miss Blanche” adopted by the main character Lee (Brian Charles Rooney). Who can hear the phrase “gentleman callers” without thinking of “The Glass Menagerie” and Amanda Wingfield? But Williams’ fascination with illusion and reality and the way society treats those who don’t conform to social norms are also recognizable themes for Jacobs and Pritchard.
In Miss Blanche Tells It All the conceit is a drag show, but really, it’s a solo show. And a remarkable one at that. It’s a bare stage except for a red curtain at the back which only takes up the middle third of the space. The back of the stage is covered with a blue scrim. The band; piano, bass and drums, is upstage right. There’s a microphone in the middle of the stage. The floor is black and the wings are black. Very minimal. When the lights go up, the band is onstage and Pete the piano player (Robert Frost) stands up and welcomes us to the Golden Lantern (which is a real bar in New Orleans – one of the first in New Orleans for “men like that”) and introduces the hottest act in New Orleans….Miss Blanche.
But instead of the polished diva we expect, Lee rushes out, robe flying, makeup mostly on, wig forgotten but hair held back with a headband, and a lace parasol coyly raised and he begins to sing his opening number, “Hothouse Flower.” “Way down upon the Mississippi / Cotton blossoms under skies of blue / Where men are men / and girls are grateful / As they couple on the old bayou.” Clearly inebriated, he discovers in the middle of the song that he has neglected to complete his transformation into Miss Blanche. After a moment of panic at having outed himself, and over the protestations of Sweet Pete, he calls for more booze, his steamer trunk and makeup table and proceeds to sing and transform into Miss Blanch before us.
But while he covers up his real face and body, the truth about who Lee is comes out of him in self-deprecating little stories about his past that he cannot seem to hold back any longer. What is mesmerizing and riveting about Miss Blanche Tells It All is how Lee/Blanche reveals his inner self while transforming, in front of us, from a man playing a half dressed drag queen, into a totally believable woman. Physically and vocally. It was a literally jaw-dropping performance by the mega-talented Brian Charles Rooney. I am not surprised that he has won two NYMF Outstanding Performance Awards for prior seasons.
Kudos also to Jacobs & Pritchard for writing a piece that both looks back but resonates today, and has layers of interest and meaning to keep us interested and focused. I particularly enjoyed that the music was original but felt familiar, while the songs were distinct from one another. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this one.
Miss Blanche Tells It All Book and Lyrics by Jason Jacobs, Music and Lyrics by Matthew C. Pritchard, Directed by Gisela Cardenas, Choreography by Nicole Curcio
WITH: Brian Charles Rooney (Miss Blanche/Lee); Robert Frost (Pete/Musical Director); Mark Van Ziegler (Bass); Kylie Andrews (Drums).
Lighting Design by Christopher Weston; Costume Design by Philip Heckman; Production Stage Manager, Heather Olmstead; General Managers, Dailey Monda Management; Assistant Director/Assitant Stage Manager, Kolya Shrayfer. Presented by the New York Musical Festival and JAJ Productions at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 415 West 42nd Street. Through Sunday 7/16/17. For tickets visit: https://ci.ovationtix.com/52/production/973935?performanceId=10173945