Tall tales can be fun precisely because they explode the boundaries of logic. And so it is with Kirsten Childs’ new musical “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in a sumptuously staged production.
The Bella of the title is one Isabella Patterson, a native of antebellum Mississippi who bears some resemblance to both Josephine Baker and the so-called Hottentot Venus, a real-life woman of African descent who toured Europe circuses in the 19th century thanks to her plus-size posterior.
Our Bella, played with infectious and giggly ebullience by Ashley D. Kelley, dubs herself “Big Booty Tupelo Gal” and boasts a girdle-busting imagination to match her ample figure.
We meet her on the lam from an ill-fated encounter with a wealthy white man (Kevin Massey), aboard a train bound for her Buffalo Soldier sweetheart out West (Britton Smith) while conjuring fantasies about fellow passengers and passers-by alike.
Along the way, we also encounter a shy spinster (Kenita R. Miller) who abruptly comes out of her shell, an attentive porter (Brandon Gill), a train-robbing outlaw named Snaggletooth Hoskins (Massey again) and a Chinese cowboy named Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban) who anachronistically strips to a gold lamé Speedo.
Childs’ imaginative book is just as wild as her heroine’s — and her songs are often tuneful charmers boosted by witty lyrics. (Bella’s first-act “I want” song features some seriously modest ambitions: “Here’s a thought that really keeps me hummin’ / Ev’ry time I do my mendin’ chores / A house that comes with plumbing indoors / That is what I want.”)
And under Robert O’Hara’s bouncy direction the 12-person cast embraces a show that kicks at some serious issues about the African American experience even as it indulges in scatological humor and a character called Spirit of the Booty (played with Earth-mother skill by NaTasha Yvette Williams). And Clint Ramos’ set design suggests a period Wild West stage show, bolstered by Jeff Sugg’s cinematic projections.
But like the bustle on Kelley’s costume, finely designed by Dede M. Ayite, Childs’ show is truly overstuffed. At two and a half hours, it just packs in too many characters who are introduced and just as quickly dispatched, too many narrative cul-de-sacs that reiterate the themes without offering enough variation or amplification. (The first act alone could benefit from a 20-minute shave.)
But it’s hard to deny Kelley’s indomitable stage presence as Bella, or her guileless approach to setbacks both large and small. And there’s much to admire in the wildness of Childs’ Wild West, and her satiric 21st-century spin on dated tropes — as in the second-act show-stopper “White People Tonight.”
Needless to say, the song is unlikely to be adopted as an alt-right anthem anytime soon.