Bella

 

 

by Michael Bracken

 

 

Size matters.

At least it does in Bella, an American Tall Tale, currently receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Kirsten Childs’s (book, music, and lyrics) whimsical musical revolves around Bella Patterson (Ashley D. Kelley), noted for her big imagination and enormous booty. Bella, you see, always looks like she’s wearing a bustle (and, of course, Kelley is), but in the world of this Tall Tale, that’s her natural endowment.

Bella is on the run. A colored girl in Reconstruction-era Mississippi, she defended herself from white plantation owner Bonny Johnny Rakehell (Kevin Massey), and now there’s a price on her head. (Childs keeps her cards close to her vest for most of the show as to the nature of the altercation – suffice it to say it involved Bella’s oversized derriere.)

When we join Bella, she is boarding a train, which consists of two straight back chairs in Clint Ramos’s simple and surprisingly effective set. She’s headed to New Mexico, where her supposed true love, Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), unwittingly awaits her. (She hasn’t told him she’s coming.) She’s helped with her bags by porter Nathaniel Beckworth (Brandon Gill), who watches out for her throughout her journey.

Kelley’s Bella is delightful. Wide-eyed with a high-pitched voice, she’s innocence personified, with a tee hee giggle that makes her seem like a child.  She’s a romantic, repeatedly proclaiming her love for Aloysiuis. Gill’s Nathaniel is solid as a rock and as kindly as they come. He cultivates an affection for Bella as they head cross-country together. She seems to like him too but must remain true to her darling Aloysius.

Bella is no stranger to adventures, which seem to come to her unbidden. Nathaniel says they’re all in her imagination. Be that as it may, they’re a mixed lot that constitute most of the show. Some, like a sequence about land for “colored folks” in Kansas, don’t quire hit the mark.

Others, like a number about a Spanish speaking (and singing) cowboy, Diego Moreno (Yurel Echezarreta), are charming. He climbs onto the train through the window. With Latin-tinged music and Latin lover flair, he seduces Bella’s fellow traveler, Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller), an uptight schoolmarm type. But one dance with Diego, and she’s ready to flee the train and ride off into the sunset with him. As Diego, Echezarreta is smooth as silk, as is Camille A. Brown’s choreography, which is not always the case. Miller’s Cabbagestalk blooms beautifully as she transforms from thorn to rose.

Paolo Montalban, Ashley D. Kelley

Another cowboy number also gets high marks for movement and music. This time the cattleman, Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban), is Asian, and his sights are set on Bella. He does a heartfelt striptease but to no avail. Bella will stay true to Aloysius.

Tall Tale gets a little unwieldy here and there, but for the most part director Robert O’Hara keeps it on track. Bella never arrives in New Mexico. She goes in and out of show business, loses Aloysius, but manages to find love anyway.

While Bella heads west, her mind frequently returns east (and south), flashing back to her mother (Kenita R. Miller), grandmother (Natasha Yvette Williams), and Aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson), three strong black women with strong black voices. They and Bella are often joined by a spirit, whom Bella and her grandma call Itty Bitty Gal. Itty Bitty Gal is a source of power for Bella. A connection to their African roots, it’s her spirit that unites these women and gives Bella the courage to take on Bonny Johnny and to stand up for herself when she feels she’s being exploited.

Bella, an American Tall Tale is, for the most part, a study in frivolity that sometimes lights up the stage and sometimes doesn’t. Itty Bitty Gal gives it some weight without impinging on its humor.

 

 

Photos: Joan Marcus

 

Through Sunday, July 2, 2017 at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). www.phnyc.org. Two hours thirty minutes with intermission

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