Once upon a time, there were hucksters and rich artists. The latter grew rich sometimes with the help of a kind of door-to-door hucksterism wherein they shilled their works to the public.
In the case of Georama: An America Panorama Told in Three Miles of Canvas, the artist was one John Banvard, now unknown.
Who was John Banvard (P.J. Griffith)? He was a showman, mainly because of the skills of his composer, Elizabeth (Jillian Louis) who worked the towns up and down the coast to promote and show off his new moving panorama of the Mississippi.
Success breeds imitation, and there are those who will take the opportunity. The huckster, who helped and then stole much of Banvard’s thunder, was Taylor (Randy Blair, in a very appealing role.) The businessman and showboat owner who remained Banvard’s friend through thick and thin was William Chapman.
To catch this musical by West Hyler (Hyler also directs) and Matt Schatz, with music and lyrics by Schatz and additional contributions to the latter by Jack Herrick, visit nymf.org. There are a couple of performances left through August 6th, which is also the end of the New York Musicals Festival.
Nativist sentiments are often rooted in the stories of European conquerors who obliterated and enslaved native populations, and then high-handedly saw themselves as the rightful owners of the lands they seized.
This is the story of Puerto Rico as depicted in Temple of the Souls, part of the New York Musical Festival and playing at the Acorn at Theatre Row. Puerto Rico, named for the golden riches the Spanish found in the port of this island, was once such a promised land; its indigenous inhabitants, the Taino Indians were defeated by the invading Spaniards. Time has melded the heritage of the isle so that most Puerto Ricans recognize themselves as descendents both of the Spanish and the Taino.
Temple of the Souls is an exploration of this history, filtered through a love story–actually several love stories. Amada (Noellia Hernandez), the daughter of one of the conquistadores, Don Severo (Danny Bolero) falls in love with Guario (Andres Qunitero), a Taino she meets in the rain forests on a fiesta day. They are the Romeo and Juliet figures in this musical. Amada’s “nurse” is Nana (Lorraine Velez in a truly earnest performance) who has kept a secret all these many years.
The music, by Dean Lanon and Anika Paris, with lyrics by Paris and Anita Velez-Mitchell, is affecting. Paris, Velez-Mitchell along with Lorca Peress, who also directs the proceedings, are responsible for the book.
Temple of the Souls is a sometimes erratic work that does not always hit its mark. It aims to elucidate the story of a country and its peoples with warmth and understanding. It’s sincerity is indisputable; its artistry is less marked. The plot and its intermingling of past and present is more intriguing in concept than in execution.The cast, mostly Equity, are all good, some even excellent.
NYMF is an annual event. It is a showcase for new musicals in development. Some make it to off- or off-off-Broadway, a few to Broadway houses. Just getting into the Festival means they have been percolating for some time.
John Banvard was a muralist during the days after the American Civil War. He painted portraits and panoramas. His mechanism for displaying a moving panorama received mention in the December 16, 1848 issue of the Scientific American magazine.
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.
When VP-E Mike Pence attended a performance recently, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon used the curtain call to petition his elected official on behalf of the other half of our country. P-E DJT took offense, and a sort of boycott was born.
For the record, VP-E MP said he was not offended: “And I nudged my kids and reminded them, that’s what freedom sounds like,” Pence said, according to news reports from CNN to the NY Daily News.
The play, which won 11 Tonys last year, has been a hot ticket since it started its Broadway transfer in the summer of 2015.