Friday, June 23, 2017

Review - Bella: An American Tall Tale

During my NYC hiatus in the 1990s, I would occasionally still visit friends and see theater. One vacation, I went with a friend to see all the new Broadway musicals - we got tickets at TKTS for a musical neither of us knew anything about, Once on This Island. To say that musical was a watershed in my life is an understatement. We went right back to see it again, to make sure that the delight we had experienced was real. It was. I have often said I feel Once on This Island is a perfect musical, just a jewel, and I developed a real artist's crush on its leading lady, La Chanze. So when I moved back to NYC and saw that she was starring in a new Off-Broadway musical, I bought a ticket sight unseen, not knowing anything about that show or its creator. It worked before, why wouldn't it work again?

Boy, did it work! After seeing The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin at Playwrights Horizons, I remained in love with La Chanze and I fell in love with the show's creator, the magnificently multitalented Kirsten Childs. It was the first time I had ever seen a musical created solely by a woman and I was just blown away. Her music was so infectious and her lyrics so insightful, I was inspired. Since I saw that show, I've been fortunate enough to meet Kirsten and to say she's as kind and wonderful as she is talented is telling the absolute truth. I've been hearing her talk about her new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale for a while, so it was a no-brainer that I would pick up a ticket for its current run at Playwrights Horizons. [Sorry for the long backstory...] 

Spoiler alert: I loved Bella! Maybe I would've regardless because I love Kirsten, but still. The show was supremely delightful, ever so smart, and slyly pointed in its politics. I just had the best time and seriously had a smile on my face throughout the entire evening. I even had one of the biggest belly laughs I've had all season in the second act! I wish I had the time (and money) to go see it again before it closes July 2. I have my fingers crossed that there will be a cast album so that I can listen to those irresistible songs again and again.

Reading the author's notes in the Playbill, Kirsten says she wanted to "...flip that script, to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body..." and she thought the best way to do it was to tell the story in the uniquely American storytelling form of the 'tall tale.' I think her idea works beautifully in Bella, because the breadth of imagination in a tall tale lends itself well to the musical pastiche that Kirsten works in - characters are so specific and the music they sing is also so specific to them, so no two songs sound alike. It's a musical cornucopia, sort of, and I loved how tailored the actors, characters, and songs were to each other.

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
The main character of the musical, Bella Patterson (played by the incandescent Ashley D. Kelley, with whom I'm also now crazy in love) is on a journey to save herself and find herself. After a near-attack by a wealthy white man in her town, Bella's protective mother and grandmother put her on a train out west. As she rides out to the man she thinks she loves, Bella imagines all sorts of adventures for herself and her fellow passengers - each adventure is more wild and exciting than the last. I just felt like I was on the edge of my seat throughout the first act, so excited to see what new treat would come out of Kirsten Childs' vivid imagination. And she did not disappoint. This musical is wildly creative and almost too-full of terrific ideas. And Kirsten's own open-hearted take on life is represented directly in her music - the positive energy and the take-charge quality of the women who are doing it all for themselves was palpable. There is strength and dignity and good humor throughout, even during the bleakest parts of the story. I guess that's what I admired most. It's easy to get bogged down and jaded in life, and this show is not bogged down or jaded at all. It's full of joy and passion, even when it comes from desperate acts. If I enjoyed the first act marginally more than the second act, ok, but the ending was terrifically powerful and so earned.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
The entire cast was spectacular, and it was so great to see a big cast fill that stage! The sets, costumes and lights were also terrific, and there were slyly placed projections throughout that added a little context to the action. The music was beautifully orchestrated, too - I'm just so glad the show was produced with so much care and attention.

After enjoying the show so much (and, seriously, everyone should get a ticket NOW), I'm also enjoying reading opinion pieces by other women, women who may have a more visceral connection to the work than I do as a white woman of a certain age and certain size. I felt a kinship to the characters, but obviously different viewpoints abound. I'm going to link to two especially interesting pieces, both of which are extremely intelligent and both of which are responses to the critical reception of the piece, mainly (again) by the white male critics of New York. Maybe I sound like a broken record, but we really need to do something about this.  Anyway, please enjoy these thoughts from Masi Asari, an amazing composer/lyricist herself (her blog post is HERE) and Sarah Lunnie, whose public Facebook post is HERE.  They talk about much of what I loved about Bella in much more articulate ways than I.  I should probably work on being a little more dispassionate, and more articulate, about work from people I already love.  It will go on my to-do list, right after I listen (again) to the Bubbly Girl cast album, which will have to do until I can listen to Bella again...

[actually, you can see a little clip of one of the numbers on YouTube - I'll link it here.  and I'll remove it if asked]

No comments:

Post a Comment