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October 9, 2003

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• Blanche and Her Joy Boys

Blanche and Her Joy Boys

By Jeffrey Borak

Playwright Mark St. Germain came to Sheffield to look at Barrington Stage Companys workshop production of Blanche and Her Joy Boys as a favor to a friend. He left as a collaborator.

That was just over a year ago -- in the summer of 2002. The result of St. Germains thoughts is on view through Oct. 19 in Barrington Stage Companys new StudioSpace on Elm Court just off Route 7, opposite the Sheffield post office and behind Wheeler & Taylor.

Performances began Wednesday. Press opening is Saturday.

Blanche and Her Joy Boys is a biographical play with music about Blanche Calloway, sister of famed entertainer and bandleader, Cab Calloway, and a ground-breaking singer and bandleader in her own right. Blanche is being played by her niece, Cab Calloways daughter, Chris, who, with those genes running around inside her, has made her own way in show business.

It was Chris determination to give her aunt her due that provided the impetus to create Blanche and Her Joy Boys, which had its first performances in Santa Fe two years ago under the title, Clouds of Joy, penned by Calloway and Sheryl Bailey Heath.

Believing she had a story worth sharing with a wider audience, Calloway got in touch with Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, who had directed Calloway in the Broadway revue, Eubie! which is built around the songs of Eubie Blake.

Boyd produced and directed Calloways show, retitled Blanche and Her Joy Boys, as a workshop production on Barrington Stages Stage II series. Even in rehearsal, Boyd knew Blanche had not yet arrived.

For one thing, Boyd said during a recent telephone interview from her Sheffield office, the two-act show was too long. It had no dramatic conflict, no interaction among its characters. So, Boyd turned to her good friend and colleague, playwright Mark St. Germain, with whom Boyd has worked on any number of projects, most recently, Ears on a Beatle, a New York-bound play that had its first performances this summer at BSCs Stage II.

I had never met Chris, St. Germain said by telephone from his Pound Ridge, N.Y., home and office. The script was long. Julie asked me to come up, see the show and just offer a second opinion.

St. Germain met with Boyd and Calloway after the performance and offered his suggestions. It became clear during the discussion that Calloway was interested in having St. Germain take over.

Chris and Mark really hit it off, Boyd said.

She does not consider herself a writer. Also, she was undergoing radiation treatment for her cancer. The combination of the treatment and performing and writing was a lot for her to deal with.

They met again in Boyds New York apartment and talked about the direction they wanted the show to take. By the time they had finished, St. Germain agreed to take over the writing. Not only that, Calloway commissioned him to write the book for a musical she wants to do about her father.

Chris already had done the groundwork [for Blanche], St. Germain said. We talked about how she wanted to feel in the play.

Its a terrific story. What Ive tried to do is put myself as much as possible into Chris head. Ive tried to carry out what Chris wanted.

They collaborated largely over long distance -- St. Germain in Pound Ridge, Calloway in Santa Fe.

Its awkward in a way, Calloway said in a telephone interview from a house in Canaan, Ct. thats been rented for her by BSC while she is in rehearsal and performance here.

Ive done two previous productions of Blanche, one as co-author, one as author. Its awkward to let go of that hat.

When I was writing, all the words had my vision. Now, its taken time to relax and let the words Mark has chosen resonate.

He uses words that, for me, have different layers of meaning. He says in four words what I want to say in 16. He is so professional and so open to the process.

Calloway, Boyd and St. Germain believe Blanche ? is tighter now than it was a year ago. The shows 2 1/4 hours have been trimmed to approximately 90 intermissionless minutes.

When Blanche ? finishes its run here, it will move to New Repertory Theatre in Newton Highlands, where it will open early next month.

It seems to me, working on this play, St. Germain said, that Chris and Blanche are very much alike in their zest for life.

I hope audiences will have an appreciation for Blanches spirit, her ability to fight through and go on despite all the obstacles, including her own fight against cancer.

Id like audiences to come away appreciating her spirit.

Blanche and Her Joy Boys runs through Oct. 19 at BSCs StudioSpace in Sheffield. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday evening at 7, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8, and Sundays at 3 and 7. Ticket information is available by phoning 528-8888.

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