Dallas — Dorothy Gale had her ruby slippers, Paul Bunyan had his ax, and Bella, the eponymous heroine of Kirsten Childs’ new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, has her giant posterior. In the grand tradition of magical objects of epics and tall tales, our heroine Bella’s derriere is more than just a derriere: it’s a symbol of sexuality, racial identity, and power—and a constant source of humor and amazement.
In this production by Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre, directed by Robert O’Hara, Bella succeeds entirely on at least one level: as a vehicle for singing actress Ashley D. Kelley in the title role. From the moment the double scrim rises on Kelley, decked out in perhaps the largest bustle ever attached to a female character, she owns the stage with wide-eyed energy and a voice that can belt, whisper, and even occasionally warble its way through a non-stop role that gets only a few occasional moments out of the spotlight.
The true story of Saartjie Baartman, an early 19th-century African woman exploited as a freak show exhibit in Britain because of her unusually large bottom, provided the initial inspiration for Bella. However, the tradition of the American tall tale, represented most famously by Paul Bunyan and Texas’ own Pecos Bill, serves as a much more significant element in the piece. Rather than a muscle-bound alpha male, Childs gives us an African-American woman, holding her own while learning to face personal weaknesses and desires, in a hostile setting.
That setting is the American West in the late 19th century, the era of cattle drives, buffalo soldiers, mail-order brides, homesteading, massive immigration, the genocide of Native Americans, the first breath of freedom for former slaves—and, significantly for this tale, the bustle. Via this setting, which we all tend to view through the lens of the Hollywood western, Childs boldly and profoundly reminds us that history is often not so much a record of facts as a reimagining of the past in our own image.
The imagined West of Bella, like Dorothy’s Oz, is both beautiful and dangerous; the action develops as a series of adventures which, true to tall-tale tradition, wrap up fantastically and delightfully. However, the clever lyrics and intriguing situations carry a score that hovers depressingly close to Andrew Lloyd Webber at his formulaic worst, with occasional, all-too-rare forays above the mediocre and predictable.
The nearly flawless performances by the cast, most of whom take on multiple roles and move easily from chorus to spotlight, go a long way toward bringing a spark to the otherwise unremarkable score. Yurel Echezarreta provides one such moment early on in the role of the sexy vaquero Diego, who choreographically seduces prim Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller); Paolo Montalban briefly steals the stage as a Chinese-American rancher who segues from Asian pseudo-Elvis into a cowboy strip-tease, giving a whole new meaning to diversity. Clifton Oliver and Donald Webber, Jr., as Bella’s competing love interests, convincingly croon the romantic, Motown-smooth ballads assigned to them, while Rubenesque M. Denise Lee, clad in body-stocking, takes on the once-in-a-lifetime role of a walking, talking rear end.
The irresistibly clever, delightfully subversive cannibal anthem, “We’re Serving White People Tonight,” provides the closest thing to a potential hit song in the show. It only takes a little sophistication and imagination to see past the over-the-top stereotyping on the surface of this number—and numerous similar moments in Bella—illuminating the historical frustration of African-Americans as well as the lingering of those stereotypes into the 21st century. Here, Childs channels that frustration brilliantly.
While the concept of expressing, through satire, the racial reality of America (reminiscent of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles in its deliberately fake Wild West setting and aggressively low-brow humor) works well through much of Bella, the storyline could use more focus and the final section declines into old-school Broadway clichés, an all-too-neat moral conclusion, and an irritating happy ending after some pretty heavy-duty, albeit humorous, examination of American culture.
The instrumental ensemble equals the cast in perfection of execution; but one can’t help wondering, however, why this production opts for an orchestration dominated by ear-grating electronic keyboard, when acoustic piano, fiddle, and banjo would have been perfect for the Wild West setting.
Director O’Hara and choreographer Camille A. Brown deftly handle this strong troupe of singing, dancing actors to fulfill Childs' dreamlike, tall-tale vision; the tension between the dream of the Old West and the reality of American history is constantly underlined by elements such as the old-time “opera house” proscenium and the sometimes childishly done projections in a production designed by Jeff Sugg with scenery by Clint Ramos, costumes by Dede Ayite, and lighting by Japhy Weiderman.
A co-production with Playwrights Horizons in New York, Bella will reappear as an off-Broadway production in the spring. Considerable revision of a basically sound, engaging concept should be considered in the meanwhile.
» Read our Work in Progress interview with Kirsten Childs