Myth making is history’s fake news, but all good fictions share a grain of truth.
Kristen Childs’ Bella: An American Tall Tale, at Playwrights Horizons through July 2nd. Directed by Robert O’Hara (auteur and director of Bootycandy (Fall 2014) also @PHnyc) and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, is a big new exuberant musical in which the cowboy truths are told from the African-American perspective. Childs’ Bella is a legend-making story, relating history through fantasy.
Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) is young and on the run. Her naiveté, like that of Voltaire’s Candide, is infectious as is her giggle. She leaves Tupelo after a confrontation with a plantation owner, Bonny Johnny (Kevin Massey) that has put a price on her head.
Bella, one of a long line of strong women, is sent off under an assumed name by her mother (Kenita R. Miller) and her aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson); her grandmother (NaTasha Yvette Williams) urges her to remember who she is. She is also aided by the spirit of an ancestor her grandma (also played by Williams) invokes.
It’s nearly 1880, and Bella heads out to reunite with her Buffalo soldier, Aloysius (Britton Smith.) Kelley’s charm, by the way, is as big as Bella’s fabled behind.
Bella meets various larger-than-life characters on her way. As is her custom, Bella weaves ever taller fables about their fates. These include a Mexican caballero named Diego Moreno (Yurel Echezarreta) and a Chinese cowboy, Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban).
A Pullman Porter whom Bella calls Mr. Porter, and who is actually called Nathaniel Beckworth (Brendon Gill), is her protector and confidante on the train ride west.
The Western setting is a natural for the rough and tumble (and rugged) entertainment Bella: An American Tall Tale gives us.
The music and lyrics (along with the book, all from Ms. Childs’ creative imagination) propel the plot, as they should in a well-ordered musical. Ms. Childs’ provides the vocal arrangements with orchestrations by Daryl Waters; the band is under the musical direction of Rona Siddiqui. Hoedown and hootenanny further serve to tell this whopping yarn. Ms. Childs’ songs range from funny/silly to interpretive to poignant.
Camille A. Brown’s terrific choreography, executed beautifully by the exceptional cast also furthers not just the plot but helps define the characterizations.
Kenita R. Miller as both Bella’s mother and the very proper Miss Cabbagestalk whom Bella meets on her journey, is outstanding. In all fairness, the entire cast, many in multiple roles, is superb. Olli Haaskivi does a nice turn as a stuttering circus announcer (and a bandit named Scooter). Jo’Nathan Michael and Gabrielle Reyes (as Mr. and Mrs. Dimwiddie respectively) do a wonderful bit when they step out of the chorus to play a couple who narrates in awe what they have just seen.
Robert O’Hara directs the spirited tale with vigor and originality. The actors give voice to Kristen Childs’ vision of the adventures of Bella Patterson, or is Johnson. The costumes by Dede M. Ayite are inspired and inspiring. The seemingly simple set (by Clint Ramos) gives color to the staging and is evocative.
Black history is an unacknowledged footnote to the history we’ve been taught in school. It’s good to see it be the main event as it is in Bella: An American Tall Tale.
For more information and tickets for Bella: An American Tall Tale, please visit the PHnyc website.