Tall tales are, by definition, unruly. But Kirsten Childs’s “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” a musical about the eventful travels of a wide-eyed beauty in the 1870s, sprawls in so many directions — with changes in tone to match (or mismatch) — that it collapses into inertia.
This comic picaresque, which opened on Monday night at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Robert O’Hara, follows Bella (Ashley D. Kelley), who is celebrated in her hometown, Tupelo, Miss., for her shape. “All of her stacked proportions make a grown man scream/She cause your glasses to fog and steam,” goes a line in the opening number, “Big Booty Tupelo Gal.”
Ms. Kelley has a twinkling gaze, an agreeable singing voice and a smile of invincible innocence. But it is her character’s bottom that is considered her greatest asset. It also turns out to have a voice and a will of its own.
Bella’s booty is her conscience and her protector. We watch it flatten railroad bandits and cushion her when she plunges down the side of a rocky precipice.
When Bella is menaced by a Mississippi plantation owner (Kevin Massey), her posterior assumes autonomous and vengeful form. (It is portrayed by NaTasha Yvette Williams, in ceremonial African dress, as the Spirit of the Booty). And when Bella strays from the proud path of her ancestors, the Spirit is there to caution, rebuke and inspire.
Ms. Childs — whose earlier work includes the delightful “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” (a 2000 musical that will be restaged as part of the Encores! Off-Center series next month) — has written that she wanted “to create a new myth celebrating the power and the beauty of the black female.” The idea of a woman who leads unabashedly with her rear has both comic and heroic appeal.
Yet the conceit never quite lands. What should be an anarchic life force often feels more like an anchor. The first act is devoted largely to the fantasies that Bella, fleeing the law after felling a would-be rapist, conjures up on a long (really long) train ride from Tupelo.
The subjects of her reveries include a dashing guitar-strumming gaucho (Yurel Echezarreta), who runs off with an uptight virgin (Kenita R. Miller, who doubles as Bella’s fretful mom), and a sexy Chinese cowboy (Paolo Montalban), who strips down to a gold thong to strut his stuff in a number inspired by a traditional Chinese folk tune.
Clearly, Bella’s imagination speaks the languages of many songbooks. There are clip-clop ole West numbers, solemn hymns of uplift and lamentation and sardonic Brechtian ditties of social evil.
There is also a charmingly wandering ballad, delivered by a lovestruck porter (a smooth-voiced Brandon Gill), that you could imagine belonging to Johnny Mathis. And, oh yes, there’s that raunchy flashback number delivered by the Spirit of the Booty, “One Ass to Another.”
As a composer, Ms. Childs has an enviable versatility. But the score lacks a steady musical signature to reconcile the abrupt shifts in tone. And as staged by Mr. O’Hara, a talented and subversive playwright (“Bootycandy,” “Barbecue”), this story of action-packed adventures feels strangely static.
In the first act, set largely in a country-crossing train, Bella spends much of her time seated. (Clint Ramos’s Wild West show-style set features a lot of chairs.) And Camille A. Brown’s choreography feels incidental and tentative. When Bella rises to dispatch her foes with her derrière, she only manages some halfhearted bumps and grinds.
Her figure, exaggerated by a bustle (Dede M. Ayite did the costumes), seems to be unusual enough that Bella winds up performing in a circus in the second act and touring the globe, where “her glorious muscle is causing a rustle” in world capitals. Disillusionment arrives, however, when Bella appears at Carnegie Hall and is ridiculed by the audience.
The most important cultural parallel here is with another entertainer of similar physical attributes. That’s the egregiously exploited Sarah Baartman, an African woman who was put on display as a sideshow freak in Europe and is the subject of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Venus,” which was revived this season by the Signature Theater Company.
You can easily interpret “Bella” as a redemptive variation on Baartman’s story, turning social tragedy into victorious comedy. But while Bella the character may be just the right size, the show in which she appears is not.
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