Sunday, June 18, 2017

29 (2017-2018): Review: BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE (seen June 17, 2017)

“Big Booty Bonanza”

Kirsten Childs, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Bella: An American Tall Tale, the bouncy, bloated, and blithely bizarre new musical at Playwrights Horizons, was inspired to write it when she saw the attention male pedestrians were paying to the expansive derriere of a voluptuous African-American woman passing by.
Ashley D. Kelley. Photo: Joan Marcus.
She wrote the show when she was struck by what she perceived as the male fascination with this “gloriously shaped Venus Hottentot behind,” which she considered a sadly overlooked “American dream girl” feature somehow equivalent to the sensual allure of Marilyn Monroe. (Some men might differ.) In it, she explains in a program note, she sought “to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body, with all the joy, fun, silliness and sorrow, heartbreak and triumph of the black woman’s experience in America.”
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
And thus we have Bella, a two-and-a-half-hour musical paean to big, black, female bottoms, and the women they belong to; oddly, it follows directly upon the heels of the recently closed Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, another Hottentot-themed show that played only a block away at the Signature.

Venus, for all its historical liberties, used colorfully larger-than-life theatrical imagery to tell the true story of Sarah Baartman, an early 19th-century African woman who became an international sensation on the freak show circuit. Bella uses similarly stagey methods to create a tall-tale world in which this “Big Booty Tupelo Gal’s” mammoth rump (represented by an oversized bustle) is not only the male gaze’s object of desire but a powerful weapon able to butt bump a bandit named Snaggletooth Hoskins (Kevin Massey) and even gas a Southern white molester (also Massey) with a fart attack so potent it deserves to have a name of its own.
Ashley D. Kelley, Kevin Massey. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Set in the 1870s, the show tells the story of Bella (a scrumptiously wonderful Ashley D. Kelley), a young, plus-sized, Tupelo, Mississippi, woman with a protuberant posterior, who gets in trouble and has to run away. Using a new last name, she’s sent on a train by her Mama (Kenita R. Miller) and Aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson) to meet up with her fiancé, Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), a black cavalryman (a.k.a. buffalo soldier), in New Mexico. There’s also her Grandma (NaTasha Yvette Williams), sometimes suffering from comic dementia (not funny) and sometimes a fount of wisdom and advocacy regarding black, female empowerment (illogical).
Ashley D. Kelley, Brandon Gill. Photo: Joan Marcus.
En route to the Wild West, the innocent, child-like, giggling, but unstoppably imaginative Bella encounters various escapades, romantic and otherwise, although it’s not always clear which are real and which fantasy (mostly the latter, it seems). One concerns the prissy Miss Cabbagestalk (Miller), a mail-order bride heading for Arizona who throws caution to the winds with a dashing Mexican caballero, Diego Moreno (the magnetic Yurel Echezarreta, who steals all his scenes). Others include Chinese cowpoke Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban), who Bella envisions as a Chippendale-like stripper, and a solicitous porter, Nathaniel Beckworth (the splendidly voiced Brandon Gill), who falls in love with Bella and serves as a sort of commentator on the action.
Paolo Montalban, Ashley D. Kelley. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whereas Act One’s dramatic progression is weak, being essentially a series of adventures, Act Two provides a sharper narrative, in which Bella becomes a high-paid entertainer in a traveling circus run by the flamboyant CP Connors (Echezarreta). Elated at first, she soon meets with disillusion and the bottle. A happy ending tries, although not very efficiently, to pull the show’s strings together.
Ashley D. Kelley, Kevin Massey, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Childs’s music ranges from the melodically bland to the tunefully enjoyable. Act Two’s numbers, beginning with “Heaven Must be Tupelo,” are generally superior to Act One’s. Satire informs many songs, like “White People Tonight,” sung as part of an African cannibal routine in Bella’s circus act. Others, like “Mama, Where Did You Go?,” well-sung by Miller, are digressive, weighing down the narrative’s progression.

Both Venus and Bella style their happenings within the context of a theatrical world; Bella’s set, designed by Clint Ramos, resembles a saloon placed within an elaborate false proscenium adorned with Wild West images; it has its own small, Showboat-like stage where several scenes are played as if from some old-time, footlit melodrama. Japhy Weideman’s lighting makes the most of such opportunities, Jeff Suggs provides marvelous projections, Dede M. Ayite’s post-Civil War costumes are charming, director Robert O’Hara’s creative staging is eye-filling, and Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography is infectious. 
Script-wise, Bella is all over the place, unsure of its satirical purposes and sometimes so outrageously phantasmagoric and hopefully provocative it becomes difficult to tell just what it is we’re watching or how seriously we’re supposed to take it. Whatever the show’s intentions may be about unearthing untold stories of black lives in the Wild West days they too often get trampled on in the rush from one bit to the other.

Luckily, Bella is staged and acted with such verve and talent and has such a marvelous, 12-member ensemble, most playing multiple roles, you can simply ignore its messages, whatever they are, and appreciate it for all its buttock-busting, tuchus-tickling, ass-conscious asininity. As they say, life can be bootiful.


Playwrights Horizons
416 42nd St., NYC
Through July 2