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Theatre in Review: Bella: An American Tall Tale (Playwrights Horizons)

Ashley D. Kelley, Kevin Massey. Photo: Joan Marcus

This isn't a term I toss around loosely, but 42nd Street is becoming the place for theatrical booty calls. Last month saw a revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus, in which all of Regency London becomes obsessed with the voluptuous shape of an African tribeswoman -- in particular, her amply padded hips and rear end. Now comes Bella: An American Tall Tale, in which the heroine, Isabella Patterson, has similarly plush contours. "That ain't no bustle, that's my derrière," she sings in the opening number, not incidentally titled "Big Booty Tupelo Gal." It's the late 1870s, and Bella is taking it on the lam from her Mississippi home following an unfortunate incident with Bonny Johnny Rakehell, a plantation owner who tried to have his way with her and paid the price.

"History is the tall tale/That you learn/From the book of the scholar," sings Bella, adding, "But there's another history/You can learn/From the tale that is taller." The tale we're about to see, she sings, "is one hundred and ten percent absolutely true." Actually, for most of the first act, it's barely a tale at all, so crammed is it with numbers that go nowhere and characters who quickly vanish from the narrative. Having established that Bella's face is on wanted posters all over Tupelo, the show delivers its thesis statement in "The Language of My Nose and Lips and Hair." The number -- featuring Bella, her mother, her grandmother, and Aunt Dinah -- evokes their distant ancestor, variously known as the Itty Bitty Gal and the Spirit of the Booty, while making an appealing case for the inherent beauty of women with African features.

But then Bella is sidelined for most of the rest of the first act, as the train on which she is traveling to New Mexico is waylaid by a series of irrelevant characters delivering silly, largely time-wasting numbers: amorous Spanish cowboys, a black woman (named Ida Lou) seeking the promised land in Kansas, a Chinese cattle baron who performs a Chippendale's-style striptease (surely a career low for the talented Paolo Montalban), and a robber, named Snaggletooth, and his gang.

The plot, such as it is, kicks in early in Act II, in which Bella is shanghaied into joining a circus and, dressed in leopard skin and sporting a bone in her hair, is presented as an authentic African princess. (It's like seeing Venus, the Musical.) According to the production notes, many of the numbers were dictated by the desire of Kirsten Childs, the show's author, composer, and librettist, to recast the Wild West in multicultural terms. It's a laudable effort -- for example, there really was a Tommie Haw, although something tells me he kept his pants on in public -- but Childs certainly doesn't shrink from employing offensive gay stereotypes when it comes to the mincing circus manager, whose makeup and hairdo would have looked overdone at the Court of Versailles.

Of how many people has one said, "Her face is her fortune"? In Bella's case, her fortune is located somewhere rather south and to the rear. She subdues Snaggletooth's cohort by aggressively swinging her hips in a way that reminded me of Appassionata von Climax, the femme fatale in the musical Li'l Abner. Fleeing Snaggletooth's gang, Bella picks up Nathaniel, the train's conductor, and they leap to freedom, bouncing down the side of a mountain, their trip cushioned by her enormous posterior. I prefer to draw a veil over the flashback in which we see how she dispatched Bonny Johnny, except to note that, if you've seen the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you will remember the militant French peasant who shouts, "I fart in your general direction." This is detailed in a number titled "One Ass to Another."

There is a very good point wandering around inside Bella: An American Tall Tale, but it is obscured by an excess of silliness and vulgarity. Surprisingly, late in Act II, after so many aggressively up-tempo numbers that add little to the story, Childs delivers several striking songs, including an alluringly bluesy ballad for Bella's mother titled, "Mama, Where Did You Go?"; "Don't Start No Shit," in which Aloysius, Bella's fiancé, and his fellow black Buffalo Soldiers push back when denied entrance to a bar; and "Nothin' But a Man," in which Nathaniel, rebuffed by Bella after their adventures together, lays bare his bitterness.

Under the fast-paced and often inventive direction of Robert O'Hara, an appealing cast works hard to maintain an engaging mood, even during the more embarrassing episodes. Ashley D. Kelley's Bella is a thoroughly disarming heroine, bouncing from one misadventure to the next with the innocence of a Candide; later on, she toughens up believably, displaying plenty of diva attitude. Other standouts include Marinda Anderson as Ida Lou, delivering the stirring number "Kansas Boun'"; Brandon Gill as the ever-faithful Nathaniel, who treats Bella as a fantasist until he gets a glimpse of her singular powers; and Britton Smith as Aloysius, a powerful presence even if he is confined to the margins of the action.

In a season of ambitious production designs at Playwrights Horizons, this one certainly holds its own. Clint Ramos' set is a kind of theatre-in-a-theatre, complete with a stage backed by a drop depicting a train engine; it also transitions effectively into a circus tent interior. Japhy Weideman's lighting provides any number of looks blending saturated colors, sidelight, and footlight effects. Jeff Sugg's projections, including some deftly cartooned landscapes, fit neatly into the set; his images also help us keep track of Bella's world tour with the circus. Dede M. Ayite's costumes are solid period creations, with some real stunners for Bella in her time of stardom. Lindsay Jones' sound design is admirably clear.

But, in its zeal to provide a kind of alternative history of black female empowerment in a time when blacks had barely emerged from slavery, Bella: An American Tall Tale overplays its hand, working overtime to sell its upbeat message. Bella's enormous booty may indeed be a beautiful thing, but I got awfully tired of hearing about it. -- David Barbour

(14 June 2017)

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