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Cabís clan
Chris Calloway celebrates her Aunt Blanche
BY TED DROZDOWSKI
Blanche and Her Joy Boys
By Mark St. Germain, based on an earlier version by Sheryl Bailey Heath and Chris Calloway. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Musical direction by David Alan Bunn. Set by Janie E. Howland. Costumes by Katherine Hampton Noland. Lighting by Izzy Einsidler. With Chris Calloway, pianist David Alan Bunn, and bassist Frank Abraham. A co-production of New Repertory Theatre and Barrington Stage Company, at New Repertory Theatre through December 14.


Whatís instantly striking about Chris Calloway is the resemblance to her famous father, the rubber-limbed bandleader and singer Cab Calloway. When Chris takes the stage to portray her pioneering aunt in Blanche and Her Joy Boys, her round eyes flash and her mouth opens wide as her unamplified voice fills the New Repertory Theatreís intimate space. Chrisís arms flap like eagleís wings as her legs bow out and she tilts from her pelvis at improbable angles. But as we learn during this glorified monologue with song, the moves were actually perfected by Cabís older sister, Blanche, who was the first African-American woman to lead a big band through the urban nightspots and rural outposts of Jim CrowĖera America.

Chris, a nightclub singer who has also portrayed jazz legend Billie Holiday on the theater stage, is a warm, spry personality at age 54. Like Cabís, her singing ranges from a dry barkerís call to warm, rich tones with gentle edges that can elicit tears from a ballad, which she does in "Lonesome Lovesick Blues" ó a tune Blanche recorded with Louis Armstrong ó and "Misery," the highlights of this one-woman-with-two-piece-band show, which is directed by Barrington Stage Company head Julianne Boyd. And Chris stays in perpetual motion, dancing and prowling across an otherwise unspectacular set, draping herself in various glittering costumes to illustrate phases of her late auntís colorful life and career. All of this makes for a fast-paced and entertaining production that does a sparkling job of bringing Blanche Calloway from the footnotes of musical history to the footlights of musical theater.

The story begins in Baltimore, where Blanche is born and sings in church until her first boyfriend takes her to a nightclub. There she hears vocalist Ida Cox and is transformed by the more corporeal power of blues. The threat of being disowned by her Bible-thumping mother does nothing to keep Blanche from her destiny, which she pursues on the stages of New York and then in the clubs of Chicago, where she meets and records with Armstrong and then begins traveling as the singer for a big band. She gets her little brother Cable, a/k/a Cab, his first job as an entertainer with the group, whom they lead together until Cabís ego forces their split. Then Blanche, with the help of a Philadelphia impresario, puts together her own big band, Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys, and begins making history, recording and touring as the first female leader of a group of male musicians.

Although Blanche and Her Joy Boys become one of the nationís most popular bands, topping the charts alongside the outfits of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, things turn sour. The rest of the tale follows Blanche through failed romances and betrayals by both her lovers and her business partners. For a time she leaves the stage. But as her second marriage turns to dust with the discovery that her husband is leading a double life with another wife and family, she returns to the spotlight at Washingtonís Crystal Caverns nightclub. There she discovers the rocking R&B singer Ruth Brown, whom she puts on the road to stardom before retiring to Miami. Despite a 12-year battle with breast cancer that claims her life at age 75, Blanche manages to spend that "retirement" as the regionís first African-American female disc jockey and the founder of Afram House, a successful mail-order cosmetics company specializing in products for black women.

This sprightly 13-song musical biography has its own fascinating story, one that began in 1985 when Chris Calloway found an album by her aunt in a record shop while on tour in London. Her father had never discussed his older siblingís musical career, and when Chris heard Blancheís singing voice for the first time, it prompted her to discover more about her auntís life and considerable achievements. After years of research, Chris authored the first version of Blanche and Her Joy Boys, which has since been refined with the help of other writers. The result is a moving, entertaining, and enlightening testimonial to the talents of both of these Calloway women.


Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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