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Bella: An American Tall Tale

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 12, 2017

Ashley D. Kelley (as Bella, center)
with members of The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bella: An American Tall Tale wore me down. The new musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Kirsten Childs is, first of all, huge, with a Broadway-size production crammed onto the intimate Playwrights Horizon stage, and a cast of twelve that works so hard and changes so many costumes, you'd think it was twice as large. It is, second of all, whimsical, aiming to do little more than drop us in the middle of its titular heroine's wild imagination and enjoy the ride. And, third, it makes very little sense. Childs leaves loose ends flapping all over the place, and you'll stop counting the number of times the narrative just halts dead in its tracks to make room for another diversion. But those diversions are, let's admit, frequently diverting, and even as we're shaking our heads at the looseness of Childs's conception and the illogic of what little story there is, we're entertained. Like I said, it wore me down.

Childs appears to be aiming for old-fashioned musical comedy—very old-fashioned, 1930s even, when musicals were star-driven and books were merely things to hang songs on. Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart she ain't, but she does provide a traditional, reasonably tuneful score with perfect or near-perfect rhyme: the first one is "scholar"/"taller." That's "Big Booty Tupelo Gal," establishing Bella Johnson (Ashley D. Kelley), our heroine. She's cheeky, in more ways than one. She has, Childs keeps telling us, a fascinating behind, one that keeps getting her into and out of trouble. Currently she has to haul it out of Mississippi, away from her stern mama (Kenita R. Miller) and distracted grandma (NaTasha Yvette Williams), who has what is meant to be funny Alzheimer's, to escape a rap. It seems Bella's wanted for assaulting a nasty, licentious white land baron with the tall-tale name of Bonny Johnny Rakehell (Kevin Massey). So she's going to hop a train and head to New Mexico, hopefully into the arms of her waiting sweetheart, Private Hunnicutt (Britton Smith), who sings her loving if condescending letter-ballads and otherwise hasn't much personality.

You'd think, this being Tupelo in 1877, Bella would face not only personal demons but racial barriers. Well, it depends on what song's coming up. The Johnsons look to be pillars of the community and equals of anyone in it, four strong-voiced gals (there's also Bella's Aunt Dinah) who celebrate their African heritage and "The Language of My Nose and Lips and Hair." The equality comes and goes, though. Private Hunnicutt and his fellow soldiers, denied service in a bar, launch into an angry and wholly out-of-left-field chorale, "Don't Start No Shit." And Bella's train mate, Ida Lou (Marinda Anderson), "Kansas Boun'" for a 40-acres-and-a-mule deal (and backed by a mixed-race chorus of ex-slaves, there being only so many chorus people), is disillusioned to discover the scrub land it turns out to be.

Did I mention that Ida Lou is a figment of Bella's imagination? As is Miss Cabbagestalk (Miller), a prim and proper passenger swept off her feet by the also-imagined Diego (Yurel Echezaretta), a hot-blooded singing cowboy? As is Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban), a Chinese cowboy who strips down to a spangled jock? Bella, you see, has an overactive imagination, and it takes most of the first act to discern what and who are and aren't real. Definitely in the former category is Nathaniel (Brandon Gill), the kindly railway porter with the lovely voice who takes a shine to Bella. But the segues into and out of Bella's dreams are ill defined, and the dreams are random. Nor is it clear whether she totally imagined these people, or met them and attached fanciful fates to them. While she's dreaming, a red light or something might help.

Now, there's nothing wrong with dreams in musicals; they were the engines that powered Peggy-Ann (1926) and Lady in the Dark (1941), to name two. But those dreams commented on and illuminated the reality surrounding them. Not here, and the elaborate stories of the characters invented by Bella's subconscious don't tell us anything about Bella. They just come and go; it's like a book musical where somebody pressed the Shuffle Play button.

The narrative does clear up for a while at the top of Act Two, which begins with a pretty chorale, "Heaven Must Be Tupelo" (enhanced by Lindsay Jones's echoey sound design) and continues with a sweet circus waltz that might have been lifted from Carnival!. Bella's non-dream story begins to resemble a cartoon version of Suzan Lori-Parks's Venus, down the block at the Signature: Bella, everyone in awe of her derriere, joins the circus, becomes a successful and vain concert artist in Europe, and returns to the States to meet with ridicule and lost love. There's also a lengthy production number about a fart. Don't ask.

The whole thing's an eyeful and earful, though, with Clint Ramos's bright, two-proscenium set with a double revolve in the middle, and Dede M. Ayite's flashy costumes, including a red gown for Bella that Dolly Levi might envy. The six-piece band, conducted by Rona Siddiqui and orchestrated by Daryl Waters, sounds big for off-Broadway, if synth-heavy and over-processed. And the cast is splendid, each and every one. Kelley is a bubbly, effusive Bella, entirely up to the role's considerable vocal and physical demands. Gill's gorgeously rangy tenor makes the most of the ardent "Nothin' But a Man," and Miller's sensitively delivered "Mama, Where Did You Go?" induces shivers, even if it comes out of nowhere. Almost everybody gets a solo or duet, and by the end of the long evening you think, Yes, I'll want the cast album. Robert O'Hara directs in a suitably jokey vein, and Camille A. Brown's choreography has plenty of bright ideas, especially when Diego and Miss Cabbagestalk get it on.

If only there were more palpable purpose behind it all. Childs has said that she wanted to write Bella because there's so little written history of black Americans from that period, and their struggles and invincibility deserve a hearing. True. And in her appealing, assertive heroine, she paints a life-affirming portrait of black and female empowerment, a young woman who's confident of her own qualities even when others aren't and is able to define her own fate when society tells her not to. But this big booty Tupelo gal just dreams too damn much, about things that don't spring organically from her id. Fun and celebratory as much of it is, Bella is one sloppy American tall tale.

Bella: An American Tall Tale
Through July 2
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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