Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bella: An American Tall Tale


What are the odds that two shows about 19th-century black women with large derrieres would arrive on Theatre Row within a month of each other? And yet the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at Signature Theatre has just been followed by the New York premiere of Kirsten Childs’s musical at Playwrights Horizons. I skipped Venus, because the prospect of watching an innocent woman being exploited and forced to appear in a freak show sounded too depressing. Although Childs’s work also includes a segment when the title character becomes a circus attraction, the prevailing spirit is far from depressing. Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) is a naive girl from Tupelo, Mississippi with a rich fantasy life who is forced to leave town after injuring a rich white man who was trying to rape her. She heads by train toward New Mexico, where her boyfriend Aloysius (Britton Smith) is a Buffalo Soldier. On the train she is looked after by a protective porter (Brandon Gill). After a fanciful adventure I will not describe, she ends up as a circus attraction who becomes a big star in Europe but, a la Josephine Baker, was scorned when she returned to America. There are many other characters: Ida Lou (Marinda Anderson, a black widow heading to Kansas where she thinks life will be safer; Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller), an old maid on her way to likely servitude as the mail-order bride of a widower with six children; a kindly couple, an inept gang of robbers, Bella’s mother (Miller again) and Aunt Dinah (Anderson again) and the grandmother (Natasha Yvette Williams) who is succumbing to dementia. Finally, there is the Spirit of the Booty (Williams again), whom you must see to believe. The cast of twelve are all talented, with Kelley and Miller the standouts. The production is lavish: Clint Ramos’s set has a Western-themed proscenium with a red velvet curtain. a painted scrim, a stage within a stage that moves back and forth and a revolving platform. [Was there a sale on stage turntables this spring? This is the fifth play I have seen recently with a revolving stage.] Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are inspired. Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography adds a lot to the production. Robert O'Hara (Bootycandy) directed. Childs’s music mixes many styles and occasionally seems derivative: there is a song near the end that sounds very similar to the disco anthem “I Will Survive.” A hilarious number in the second act called “White People Tonight” got a big reaction. It all goes down easy, but seems muddled and overstuffed. It has already shed 20 minutes in previews but could profitably lose a few more, preferably in the first act. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

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