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.
History can sometimes revel in a very personal dynamic.
For instance, those of us who lived through and joined in protests against the Vietnam War may not share the viewpoint of the main character in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, currently playing at MTC’s City Center Stage I through December 4th.
Quang (Raymond Lee) was a pilot in the South Vietnamese armed forces. He was trained in the United States. He saw the North Vietnamese as a genuine threat to life and liberty and welcomed the help of American soldiers in the struggle.
Vietgone is a fast-paced kind-of-multi-media excursion into the hero’s and heroine’s, Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), survival. They meet at a state-side refugee camp where Tong and her mother (Samantha Quan, in a number of roles) have come after the fall of Saigon.
The piece is, and isn’t, narrated by the Playwright (Paco Tolson, also playing several people), who is commemorating his parents’ story. There are rapped love songs, (original music by Shane Rettig) motorcycles, a roadtrip, and a bromance– all trappings to some extent of the era portrayed in the plot.
For the most part,Vietgone is entertaining, interesting, unusual in structure, and well presented. There is room for some cuts here and there. The cast, under May Adrales’ direction, and staging, with scenic designs by Tim Mackabee and projection design by Jared Mezzocchi, are excellent.
In other subscription house news from our household:
Over at Studio 54 througfh January 15, 2017, Roundabout has mounted a vehicle for nostalgia. Holiday Inn, with no irony whatsoever, cries out for Mickey and Judy. It is well-served by the cast on hand, however, and a pleasantly tuneful production makes for a great afternoon at the movies, er theater.Bryce Pinkham and Corbin Bleu are the friends and dancing partners, along with Megan Sikora, and Lora Lee Gayer who lead the ensemble in song and dance.
MTC gives us Heisenberg at its Broadway venue, the Friedman Theatre through December 11th. Why Heisenberg? The play, so well-acted by Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker as to have one puzzling over the quantum physics of it name, is an enjoyable two-hander. It’s gimmicky staging notwithstanding, the dynamic of the drama is captivating. Heisenbergis a sweet-crazy story, written by Simon Stephens, the pen behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Heisenberg was a transfer from Off-Off, and as such had some buzziness surrounding it.Director Mark Brokaw elicits strong performances from both his actors. Parker, who unleashes the odd-ball in her character in little bursts, is fun to watch.Arndt’s charm reveals how a pent-up man can suddenly be both impetuous and child-like. So, back to the title: Heisenberghas an underlying ifsmall principle of uncertainty that you will likely enjoy.
After 11,000 performances, a musical drama could be forgiven if it began to show some wear. In theater time, a run of more than 25 years is a very long lifetime.
The Phantom of the Opera, in its 27th year on Broadway, at the Majestic Theatre, hasn’t aged, or rather it has aged well. This is not a show resting on its laurels. Or on its worldwide success in tours all over the US, in Stockholm or Budapest or Istanbul, among the many places it has found a home.
Despite the myriad other accomplishments of his career, Phantom may prove to be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s crowning legacy. It was a breakout hit from its opening night at the Majestic in 1988, where it walked away with 7 Tony Awards, including for Best Musical, Design and Direction.
The music, by Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart, breaks over you in tidal waves of emotion. It’s lush and romantic, familiar yet very strange. Webber along with Richard Stilgoe (who has also provided some of the lyrics) fashioned the story from Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel, “Le Fantome de L’Opera.”
The Phantom of the Opera creates a world of its own; it emerses us in it. Through our willing suspension of disbelief, we descend into this netherworld of fantastical creatures and objects masterminded by the fiendish Phantom (James Barbour.) The story takes us into a Paris opera house haunted by a frighteningly demanding ghost. The Phantom’s obsession with a young soprano, Christine Daaé (Kaley Ann Voorhees) overwhelms him. She mistakes the monster for “the Angel of Music” her father promised to send her. At first, she is deceived by the Phantom’s exacting taste and guided by his instruction. When a childhood love, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Jeremy Hays) becomes a patron for the Opera House, the Phantom’s jealousy has diabolical consequences.
There are many pleasures in revisiting Phantom, not the least of which is seeing the excellent cast and operatic staging. Hal Prince directs the players, while Gillian Lynne provides the musical staging and choreography. The production is designed by Maria Björnson.
The large ensemble proffers many delightful performances, with Michelle McConnell as the diva, Carlotta Giudicelli, the Phantom shuns in the opera within the musical, just one of many.