|Ashley D. Kelley (as Bella) & Brandon Gill. Photo: Joan Marcus
Book, Music and Lyrcis by Kirsten Childs
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Through July 2
By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
It's a tall tale, all right, told by a woman with a very large tail.... Kirsten Childs (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin) brings to life this fanciful story of Bella (Ashley D. Kelley), a 1870's African-American woman who heads west to join her pen-pal soldier boyfriend, Aloicious. She isn't just leaving town to pursue love, however. Something has happened with Lothario Plantation owner Bonny Johnny (Kevin Massey) and her mother (Kenita R. Miller) and aunt (Marinda Anderson) convince her to leave town and assume a new identity.
Along the way (the beautiful buffalo and Native-American-motiffed set is designed by Clint Ramos), she meets a host of characters with the help of a rotating stage (played by a strong ensemble rounded out by Yurel Echezarreta, Olli Haaskivi, Jo’Nathan Michael, Paolo Montalban, Gabrielle Reyes, Britton Smith and NaTasha Yvette Williams) and train porter Nathaniel Bekwith, who might just be the man of her dreams. Or is he a man of her dreams? Along the way, doubt creeps in to just how much of the story we are seeing is real or in the imagination of a girl with a very large behind who is forced to make her living as an attraction in the circus.
What Are the Highlights?
If the premise sounds a bit bizarre, it is, but it is very absorbing, thanks to sharp direction by Robert O'Hara (who directed the also-different Booty Candy at Playwrights Horizons) who blends storytelling, choreography (by Camille A. Brown) and the music by Childs, who also provides the vocal arrangements and lyrics. (Music Direction and additional arrangements are by Rona Siddiqui; Orchestrations are by Daryl Waters).
Childs reaches into American history and comes up with a whole new cast of characters: African Americans living in working in the west -- chapters left out of most school history textbooks. The playwright has created such a fascinating world, that I was surprised not to find a dramaturg's note in the program saying that the story was based on real-life people. They are in general, of course, but this story feels like it is the re-telling of a legend like the Robber Bridgroom -- also set close-by on the Natchez Trace. Bella evokes humor in the same kind of dark-fairytale dreamworld which I particularly enjoy.
What Are the Lowlights:
At two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission, the musical starts to wander and drag toward the end. Some editing (an a trimming of the some 30 musical numbers included) can fix this.
Bella spins her tall tales at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., NYC through July 2.
Costume Design by Dede M. Ayite, Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Lindsay Jones, Projection Design by Jeff Sugg, Hair, Wig and Makeup Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas.
-- Suggestive moments