Off-Broadway Review: “Miss Blanche Tells It All” at the New York Musical Festival at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater

Off-Broadway Review: “Miss Blanche Tells It All” at the New York Musical Festival at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (Closed Sunday July 16, 2017)
Book and Lyrics by Jason Jacobs
Music and Lyrics by Matthew C. Pritchard
Directed by Gisela Cardenas
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“These parting words, she left behind/These parting words she left behind/And I put them in your hands now/These parting words she left behind.” – The Nun

Lee (Brian Charles Rooney) is the twenty-something female impersonator who graces the small stage at the Golden Lantern, an old bar – a joint – in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The small crowd comes out, as it often has in the past, to enjoy Lee’s “Miss Blanche Tells All” – a drag show that has never disappointed until perhaps on this unusual night. The bar’s piano player Pete (Robert Frost) announces the drag star as the “The Queen of the French Quarter, the belle of every ball, the sweetest magnolia that ever blossomed on the Mississippi.” The drag star does not enter from behind the curtain.

Instead, Lee stumbles onto the stage wearing a light kimono wrap, headcover, with some makeup having been applied. He is still wearing pants, tee-shirt, and shoes and Blanche – he, Lee, and the audience discover – has “been detained” and “regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” After a verbal scuffle with Pete, and a few (more) drinks, Lee vamps into an alternate show about his life as a gay young man growing up in the “dreary suburbs of Kenner,” about thirteen miles from his birthplace in New Orleans.

Lee asks that his trunk, a tall wardrobe steamer, be moved onto the stage. On top of the trunk sits an unopened telegram envelope which Lee places atop the piano. The presence of this trunk is the first powerful bit of foreshadowing in “Miss Blanche Tells It All” at the New York Musical Festival at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Is this Lee’s trunk? His mother’s trunk? The trunk left behind by someone who occupied Lee’s home prior to his family? Enigmatic questions that will be answered in due time.

Lee’s story is not an unusual one on the surface. He grew up in the 1960s with an abusive alcoholic father who shamed Lee at every opportunity and abused Lee’s doting mother who gave all her attention to Lee and encouraged her son’s interest in the contents of the trunk – the trunk now onstage and, perhaps, belonging to someone close to his family. There is a surprise under every item removed from Miss Blanche’s trunk and behind every corner of Lee’s cavernous and rich memory of his childhood and adolescence. Lee seeks surcease from the abuse in drugs and anonymous sexual encounters and in the attention of a special male teacher – and the women he sees in the “Million Dollar Movie.”

“Miss Blanche Tells It All” continues Lee’s story through a series of flashbacks that reveal – bit by bit – what Lee experienced with his father and his mother. The scenes are often heartbreaking and deeply engaging. Brian Charles Rooney knows his characters well. He has explored every characteristic of the drag star he portrays, Lee’s family, and the environment in which Lee grew up. This is a story richly steeped in the imagination of Tennessee Williams. Lee’s stories are counterpointed by musical numbers that not only support the narrative but extend the conversation beyond the present.

The story is so well crafted by Jason Jacobs and the storytelling by Brian Charles Rooney is so pristine that to give much detail would require a spoiler alert. Mr. Rooney unpeels the layers of Mr. Jacobs’s book with the precision of a skilled surgeon – each incision is either a bit of foreshadowing or the slightest stich of a deep secret just waiting to emerge upon the stage. There is, for example, Lee’s “Saturday adventures” with his mother, visits to a place “like a hotel” where she visits “a friend.” Lee is instructed to stay outside and play and to keep the visits a secret from his father. These visits are not what the audience might presume. And the identity of the “friend” near the end brings everything in the musical to a startling critical juncture. And there is that telegram and Lee’s visit to “the hotel” after his mother’s death and the book left for him after Lee’s mother’s “friend” passed away.

Under Gisela Cardenas’s stunning direction, Brian Charles Rooney delivers a bravura performance that not only engages the audience, but holds each member spellbound for seventy-five minutes. Jason Jacobs and Matthew C. Pritchard have developed a masterful story that – though depending on several well-known theatrical conventions – surpasses other attempts of exploring the physical, emotional, and spiritual journey of a gay child finding his way to the challenges of adulthood and the possibility of taking “roads not taken.”

The audience is ready for the resolution to Lee’s (and Blanche’s) story after the tour de force performance of “Dress to Kill.” But Miss Blanche (yes, the drag star does appear) with the extension of one index finger indicated to the audience there is more to come. And there is. The surprise ending, though thoughtful and engaging, might be the part of the musical that needs some tweaking; however, “Miss Blanche Tells It All” is a finetuned, superbly crafted piece of theatre that will re-emerge soon – soon and very soon – on the New York (and beyond) stage.