By Donna Herman
Bella: An American Tall Tale with book, music and lyrics by Obie Award winner Kirsten Childs, and directed by two-time Obie Award winner Robert O’Hara, is billed as a Western musical adventure. Ms. Childs sets out to turn a modern day woman she glimpsed on the street (and how all the men who were passing by reacted to her), into her heroine, a big booty Tupelo gal named Bella (Ashley D. Kelley). And in a tradition as old as America itself, attempts to tell the forgotten tales of the haunted and the hunted, and all those who came from far off lands to build, populate and protect this country’s frontiers.
Bella: An American Tall Tale, doesn’t actually start out in a promising fashion. The opening number, “Big Booty Tupelo Gal” establishes Ms. Childs as a composer and lyricist to be reckoned with, Ms. Kelley as a singer of considerable talent, and Bella as a woman with a big ass. Okay, it supposedly has magical properties, it can help protect and defend but…really? That’s what’s special about her?
While her physical attributes cause grown men to gasp and stumble, Bella’s mental acuity is immediately revealed to be something less than massive. She is a wanted woman as the result of having fought off plantation owner Bonny Jonny Rakehell (Kevin Massey). In the opening scene she is boarding a train for New Mexico to flee to her boyfriend Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), a Buffalo Soldier with the army. Bella is carrying around a Wanted poster of herself, can’t remember that she’s supposed to be going by the name of Bella Johnson, instead of Patterson, and can’t stop giggling.
Luckily she meets the Porter (Brandon Gill) Nathaniel, who has more sense than she does, and he puts her in a car with Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller) and tells her to stay there. Miss Cabbagestalk no sooner tells Bella she is a mail order bride, going to a loveless marriage where she expects to be miserable, then a singing caballero (Yurel Echezarreta) jumps in the window of the moving train, captures her spinster heart, and they jump out the window together.
This is where the tale starts to get tall. And really long. But for me, the end of the ride came with the singing Chinese cowboy and cattle baron, Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban). He appears out of the night stars in a white, rhinestone-studded outfit, and sings to Bella about how he built the railroad and then became a cattle baron. And at the end of the song he strips down to gold lame briefs. Just because.
Don’t get me wrong, there was lots more show to go, but the thread my disbelief was suspended on snapped at that moment. And that was before Bella and the Porter jump out of the train stuck on the top of a bridge, with nothing but her derriere to protect them. And sing a very long song on the way down. Before, she gets rescued, then exploited by a circus that has her dressing up in animal skins and performing for crowds. And becoming the toast of Europe.
The sad part is, there is so much talent on the stage. But the staging is static, and the book and the plot are confusing, juvenile, and don’t accomplish Ms. Childs’ lofty ideas. She’s not offering empowering alternative archetypes, she’s regurgitating stereotypes.
Bella: An American Tall Tale Book, Music & Lyrics by Kirsten Childs, Directed by Robert O’Hara, Choreography by Camille A. Brown
WITH: Marinda Anderson (Aunt Dinah/Ida Lou Simpson); Yurel Echezarreta); Brandon Gill (Nathaniel Beckworth); Olli Haaskivi (Gabriel Conyers/Scooter); Ashley D. Kelley (Bella); Kevin Massey (Snaggletooth Hoskins/Bonny Jonny); Jo’Nathan Michael (Mr. Dinwiddie/Scumbucket); Kenita R. Miller (Miss Cabbagestalk/Mama); Paolo Montalban (Tommie Haw/Skeeter); Gabrielle Reyes (Mrs. Dinwiddie/Nurse); Britton Smith (Aloysius T. Honeycutt); Natasha Yvette Williams (Grandma/Spirit of the Booty)
Scenic Design by Clint Ramos; Costume Design by Dede M. Ayite; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Lindsay Jones; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design by Dave Bova & J. Jared Janas; Orchestrations by Daryl Waters; Music Direction and Additional Arrangements by Rona Siddiqui; Music Coordinator, John Miller; Production Stage Manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, Artistic Director. 416 West 42nd Street. Through July 2nd. For tickets visit www.phnyc.org, or call 212-279-4200, or visit the Box Office.