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A CurtainUp Review
Bella: An American Tall Tale
By Elyse Sommer
Bella: An American Tall Tale reunites Ms. Childs with Playwrights Horizon where she first came to public attention as a musical theater artist with her Obie Award winning The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, a satirical look at how African American women have been defined (by others and themselves) between the 1960's to the 1990's.
I didn't see Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chamelion Skin I did see a workshop production of Funked Up Fairy Tales at Barrington Stage in 2007, a magic infused musical spin on familiar folk tale heroes, heroines and villains. Unlike the easily recognized folk tale characters of that musical, the plus-sized woman being stared at in Ms. Childs New York neighborhood inspired her to bring to life the generally unknown men and women who were part of the American West's history.
Childs' reference to the derriere of the woman who she turned into Bella as a "gloriously shaped Venus Hottentot behind" refers to the tragic true story of Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Venus Hottentot. Suzann-Lori Parks turned that story into Venus , a biographical play about Baartman that has just finished an intriguing revival as part of Parks' Signature Theater Center Residency. Childs, on the other hand, has used an unnamed African ancestor to trigger her more cartoonish All-American fictional story of a young woman for whom that big booty becomes a metaphor for accepting her heritage.
Most of the fantastical figures who pop up in young Bella's dreams during her journey to escape from her Mississippi hometown's problems to marry her sweetheart in New Mexico are double cast. Even so, this is an expensive undertaking since the big cast is supported by a lavish, colorful production values.
Robert O'Hara, himself an inventive creator of plays with wildly imaginative and cheeky African-American characters, is something of an inspired choice to steer Childs' Bella through her travels. His own over the top last play for Playwrights Horizon was called Boot Candy with that title used to underscore the appeal of big-bodies females and explain why a key character is named Genitalia.
Despite the cheeky humor, hard working cast and staging assets, O'Hara was unable to rescue his play from its numerous less successful segments and feeling self-indulgently long. Unfortunately this applies even more so to Bella: An American Tall Tale. It's not without strong assets, but takes its time— pretty much the entire first act— to get beyond a mish-mash of songs and characters piled on top of each other.
To put the good news up front, even as you take your seat in the handsome Mainstage Theater the Wild West images on the proscenium around the curtain set the tone for a good time to come. And scenic designer Clint Ramos delivers on that promise with a clever set within a set — the one downstage occasionally rotating and the raised one upstage to animate Bella's wild dreams. And Dede M. Ayite's costumes are terrific.
On a less happy note, despite the excellent designers and energetic cast, the storytelling and musical numbers lack the polish of the big Broadway-ish musical this aims to be. The good news is that everything and everyone gets better after the intermission. That also goes for Ashley D. Kelley who is making her New York debut as the show's heroine. While she's likeable and winning and displays powerful vocals throughout, it's not until the second act that we get to see a more nuanced Bella
It's Bella's response to a lecherous plantation owner's assault (Kevin Massey ably doubling as this and another villain) that forces 16-year-old Bella to leave her home under an alias. That response was powered by the magical power residing in that big booty which her grandma explains has been passed down to her from an African ancestor (Both the Spirit of Booty and the Grandma urging Bella to value and accept that heritage are played by Natasha Yvette Williams).
Since Bella's imagination is as big as that booty so much is going on in her subconscious that her adventures are expressed through dreams that fill that upstage playing area with lots of action. Bella's dream enlivened journey changes course when a pair of entrepreneurs offer her a chance to become a star attraction in their circus. That's when Bella, like the real Saartjie Baartman, becomes a circus attraction. Unlike Baartman's Hottentot Venus, Bella refuses to be a freak but becomes a world traveling star. Still, that stardom comes with a darker edge. And unlike Baartman's downbeat ending, Childs gives her show a self-empowering and fairly predictable happy ending with reprises of the stronger numbers like "Trav'lin the World" and "Big Booty Tupelo Girl."
While billed as a world premiere, this show did have a previous run at the Dallas Theater Center which also shared some of the costs. It's too bad they didn't use the time between the Texas run and the one now at Playwrights Horizon to make it less messy and confusing. It would also have helped to make this tall tale quite a bit shorter.
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Bella: An American Tall Tale
Book, Music & Lyrics By Kirsten Childs
Directed Robert O'Hara
Choreography by Camille A. Brown
Cast: Marinda Anderson (Ida Lou/Aunt Dinah), Yurel Echezarreta (Diego Moreno/CP Conyers), Brandon Gill (Nathaniel Beckworth), Olli Haaskivi (Gabriel Conyers/Scooter), Ashley D. Kelley (Bella), Kevin Massey (Snaggletooth Hoskins), Jo’Nathan Michael (Mr.Dinwiddie/Scumbucket),Kenita R. Miller (Miss Cabbagestalk/Mama),Paolo Montalban (Tommie Haw/Skeeter), Gabrielle Reyes (Mrs. Dinwiddie/Nurse)Britton Smith (Aloysius T. Honeycutt), Natasha Yvette Williams (Grandma/Spirit of the Booty).
Sets: Clint Ramos
Costumes: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Lindsay Jones
Projections: Jeff Sugg
Hair, wig and makeup: Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas
Orchestrations: Daryl Waters
Vocal arrangements: Kirsten Childs
Music direction and additional arrangements: Rona Siddiqui
Music coordinator: John Miller
Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 1 intermission
Playwrights Horizon 416 West 42nd Street
From 5/19/17; opening 6/12/17; closing 7/02/17
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM. Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 10 press preview
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