BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALEBook, Music and Lyrics by Kirsten Childs
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Orchestrations by Daryl Waters
Vocal Arrangements - Kirsten Childs
Music Director, and Additional Arrangements - Rona Siddiqui
Scenic Designer - Clint Ramos
Costume Designer - Dede Ayite
Lighting Designer - Japhy Weideman
Sound Designer - Brian McDonald
Projection Designer - Jeff Sugg
Hair, Wig & Make-up Designer - David Bova & J. Jared Janas
Associate Choreographer - Rickey Tripp
Stage Manager - Eric Tysinger
Snaggletooth / Bonny Johnny - Josh Davis
Diego / Conyers - Yurel Echezarreta
Bella - Ashley D. Kelley
Grandma / Booty - M. Denise Lee
Mr. Dinwiddie / Ensemble - Will Mann
Aunt Dinah - Liz Mikel
Mama / Miss Cabbagestalk - Kenita R. Miller
Tommie Haw - Paolo Montalban
Aloysius - Clifton Oliver
Mrs. Dinwiddie / Ensemble - Gabrielle Reyes
Gabriel - Zak Reynolds
Nathaniel - Donald Webber Jr.
Conductor - Rona Siddiqui
Associate Conductor - Vonda K. Bowling
Drums - John Bryant
Percussion - Gene Glover
Bass - Carl Hillman
Guitar - Todd Parsnow
Violin - Samuel Wood
Reeds - Randy Lee
Reviewed Performance: 9/30/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Kirsten Childs created this new musical out of a fantastic imagination and this Dallas Theater Center production is part of the development process in a push towards its New York opening in May. With its direction by Robert O’Hara, noted playwright and author of the recent Stage West premier of BootyCandy, the work of Childs has been taken through a great deal of refinement since its initial workshop. As author of the book, music and lyrics, this show reveals Childs as a developing talent in the musical theater genre and this show will undoubtedly find success in the future.
The design was spectacular in all aspects. From the golden-framed proscenium into a set that combined bare floor, movable furniture pieces, lush stage frames with a rear orchestra platform and doorways on each wing, plus projections which enhance the setting, the story of Bella unfolded across numerous settings from a plantation, train station, train passenger car, and traveling circus tent, with momentary excursions into other fantastical worlds. Scenic Designer, Clint Ramos, created these settings in what looked like the structure of a circus tent, which it became at the end, but outfitted with different furnishings for other locations. Lighting Designer, Japhy Weideman, added a number of interesting lighting spots and specials to a warm overall wash that seemed to create comfort rather than tension. The narrow-beam spots from above, upstage and front of house cut through ever-present stage smoke to make visible beams of light that fell onto the stage, wrapping actors as they sang, and created shadows on the stage floor.
Jeff Sugg, Projection Designer, combined a variety of projected effects and scenes with Weideman’s lighting effects to expand that fantastical visual experience across stage and proscenium. These included projections on and through scrims to create backdrop scenes, a moving starlight show and images of figures dancing across the circus scene.
Sound Designer Brian McDonald gave us a plethora of sound effects like gun shots, train noises, circus noises and recorded narrations that integrated closely with the music from the stage. Overall the show had a dime-store novel feel, like Saturday morning cartoons. This supported the tall tales genre well. And the sound balances were perfect.
The time period was 1870 and lavish costumes were colorful and filled with frilly accoutrements, including puffy floor-length silk dresses, 1800s pants and suits for the gents, and a variety of oddities, such as animal head dress for one song. Costume Designer, Dede Ayite, gave the ensemble a huge number of costume pieces to cover both the primary story line and many fantasy scenes with Indians, circus folk, a Mexican Cowboy, Tommy Hall, a Chinese Elvis-like male stripper, and the wildest getup for an African ancestor you’ll see anywhere. Bella’s big deep red costume with huge booty piece was stunning, almost a sub-character, always in-view. If you add the outlandish hair, wig and make-up looks by Co-Designers, David Bova and J. Jared Janas, the twelve cast members, who could change to dramatically different looks in a hurry, were able to make it seem as if there were dozens of actors doing many more characters.
Bella: An American Tall Tale was a fantastical journey through the west and, in most respects, took on the air of cartoon shows of old-time, dime-store movie reels at the neighborhood theater in the early 1950s. But the music was lush, beautiful and evocative, with a range from deep bluesy lamentation about the plight of different ostracized groups to soulful ballads that spoke of heartbreak, lost love and cultural connection. Rona Siddiqui, Music Director, combined Kirsten Childs’ vocal arrangements and Daryl Waters’ orchestrations into a musical extravaganza that fit the story and setting. Put that music into voices of very strong singers who delivered both musical style of each song and deep character subtext and the experience was a deeply spiritual story, in a non-religious way. Add an ensemble sounding like a seasoned choir who could meld luscious harmonies with an orchestra that sounded like many more instruments than they had, and these stories unfolded with pathos and beauty through the music. If this show was simply a musical concert, it would still be one of the most entertaining evenings out there.
There was a lot of dance movement by the full ensemble, but it was hard to distinguish from stage movement, which itself often looked like dance in its precise coordination. So kudos to Camille A. Brown who choreographed Bella, and to Director, Robert O'Hara, who probably integrated stage movement with dance to create an almost-continuous moving production. It was all made more interesting with a turntable that made walks and journeys seem more distant and stylized, like the first years of Les Misérables. The movement created a constant flow to the show which hid the reality of a two-hour duration in the excitement of the spectacle.
Kirsten Child’s story is a wild imagination of Bella, a freed slave abused by a plantation owner, who mysteriously met his demise at the hands of Bella’s long-dead ancestor. With a bounty on her head, she escapes to the west to find her Buffalo Soldier honey, boards a train to New Mexico, and proceeds to encounter many strange and wondrous sights and people on her journey. In an amalgam of numerous scene vignettes, each with a song and a theme about Bella’s fears or experiences of various ethnic groups in the 1800s, Bella’s fantasies come to life from books she’s read of the old west. There’s a historical theme of histories of ethnic groups that were never written in the history books, but much of the story revolves around Bella’s inner fight with her big booty and her African and slave family cultural past.
Ashley D. Kelley fit into the role of Bella like a glove, the perfect actor to tell Bella’s story. She wore her big-booty costume well, took on Bella’s persona of an unsophisticated young girl learning the ropes of life along her journey and either accidentally fell into or made the right life choices, in a highly entertaining way. Kelley’s voice is about as strong as you could get in a cast of fantastic singers and her characterization was both poignant and focused. She was a massive presence at all times and on-stage throughout the show. Her songs ranged across different styles, but were always deeply felt and delivered. She was part of most every songs, but I especially liked her Tupelo Woman and We Serve White People, which allowed her to stretch her vocal range and play with tempo and rhythm like toys.
Note that there was no list of songs in the program, so any song titles are simply guesses from the words I heard.
Bella’s family included her Mama, played by Kenita R. Miller, her Grandma, played by M. Denise Lee, and her Aunt Dinah, played by Liz Mikel. Together these women provide Bella’s heritage, supporting and fretting over her journey and constantly occupying her memories to remind her who she is. Miller walked a tight rope between a mother doing what’s best for her young daughter as she runs from the law and also as a daughter dealing with her own mother, Grandma, who flirts with age dementia. Miller took her strong vocal skills into the depths of anguish as a parent and frustration over having to deal with Grandma’s craziness. In a song about Mama, we hear and see this tightrope in action and we hear the depths of feelings Mama has towards both. Miller also played Miss Cabbagestalk, a mail-order bride on the train with Bella, heading west to meet her intended, but in Bella’s imagination, she is taken away by a suave Mexican Cowboy and Miller played this seduction with great passion, to the delight of the audience.
M. Denise Lee was the Grandma exhibiting a failing memory, along with all the humor that comes from forgetting who her people are, but also imparting great wisdom to Bella. She is the living past for Bella, a strong connection to her culture and her mantra to Bella perhaps was the strongest theme of Child’s imagination. “Make your memory so big, nobody ever forgets.” Bella did that. Childs seems to be walking that path as well. Lee also played Booty, who is the mythical African ancestor who protects Bella and connects her to her distant past. This is a character spoken about in many of the fantasies, who then shows up on-stage to protect Bella again. A large woman with striking resemblance to Bella, dressed in African headdress and what I can only imagine was a flesh-colored, sheer body stocking, Booty helps Bella find her personal values and the importance of her own booty, the source of her personal strength. In this role, Lee added her own powerful solo voice to drive the beat of the show to its climax. Her performance, while hilarious, saucy, and visually stunning cannot be described. You have to see this show to believe what she does.
Liz Mikel’s Aunt Dinah is the last of the quartet and her own kind of presence. She seems almost an after-thought supporting role, except that her text and singing make her powerful within that trio of women in Bella’s mind, yet her role is not quite as fleshed out in its backstory or purpose. But add her text and voice to the non-fantasy part of the story and Aunt Dinah connects Bella to her current generation. Mikel seemed to bring gravitas to that story.
Bella has two suitors in her journey, one she’s chasing and one who chases her. Aloysius is a Buffalo Soldier stationed in New Mexico who sends love letters to Bella. And the porter on the train discovers her and her innocence, as well as truths about her flight from justice, and falls in love with her anyway. Aloysius is always there in Bella’s mind. He’s her quest, perhaps a savior, but always stuck in her future. Nathaniel Beckwith, the porter, is always there in her present, protecting her from unknown harms, but always shrinking into the background of Bella’s life.
Aloysius was played by Clifton Oliver, a strong hunk of a man who fits our stereotype of a lonely man on the western prairie, protecting settlers from Indians, but finding discrimination in the town. This character has no backstory and we don’t find much to reveal his motivations for wanting Bella, but in a scene that juxtaposes his rebellion against his discrimination with his own sudden and unexplained rejection of Bella, Oliver gives a strong performance and sings with his fellow soldiers a denouncement of the bar owner who rejected them. Oliver played ensemble characters in various fantasy vignettes and always brought his strong voice and physicality to those roles, but clearly differently from Aloysius.
The porter, Nathaniel, on the other hand is played by Donald Webber Jr. with a quiet, almost subservient demeanor, always polite and respectful, protective of her identity, and the idea of loving this woman sneaks up on him, and on us. His various moments as outlandish ensemble characters show a strong ensemble presence and voice, but it’s during his scenes with Kelley, especially as Bella and Nathaniel fall from the train trestle onto the Circus tent below and, as he sings his own laments, Nothing But A Man and You Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone (guessing at these titles), that we hear a man who put deep soul and lush resonance into those sad ballads. Those songs revealed his feelings for Bella and may be among the most tender in the show.
Childs wrote a slew of outlandish fantastical characters into Bella’s fantasies, and all these actors played multiple characters and ensemble singers as well. There’s so many good performances there, such as Diego, the Mexican Cowboy, played with a seductive romantic song by Yurel Echezarreta as he storms the train and steals the heart of Miss Cabbagestalk, Paolo Montalban who plays Tommie Haw, the Chinese male stripper in a gold lamé speedo under his pure white tear-away suit, and Gabriel, the hunchback circus manager played by Zak Reynolds. These and numerous others brought Bella’s fantasies to life in purposeful over-the-top performances that were as hilarious and outlandish as their phantasmagorical visual displays. Their songs were as strong as the important storyline songs and served to expose some historical stereotype of the old west.
But in every tall tale, especially in western tales of the 1800s, there must be an evil villain, a Snidely Whiplash (look it up) character. And this story had two. Snaggletooth and Bonny Johnny were created and fully embodied by Josh Davis. Whether Snaggletooth, the train robber, who caused Bella and Nathaniel to jump the train into the abyss, or Bonny Johnny, the evil rapist in Tupelo who assaulted Bella, Davis committed fully to his demonic characters. His physicality in creating evil, wrapped in outlandish costumes and makeup reminiscent of Snidely himself, made him every bit the cartoon character we needed to make these evil deeds palatable. And his voice had a quality that made his lyrics believably evil and hard to describe, yet easy to recognize and feel. It seemed Davis reveled in these characters.
Bella: An American Tall Tale was an outstanding development in the musical theater genre. It’s unique in many ways in how it tells its story, a visual explosion of sights and sounds and a vehicle creating starring roles for strong singers from diverse backgrounds. Bravo to Dallas Theater Center for being part of its development. Kirsten Childs put her story into the hands of a capable Director in Robert O'Hara and a team of designers and co-directors who could turn it into a Broadway-quality production. O’Hara and his casting agents in New York and Dallas really hit on all cylinders when they cast this ensemble who molded their acting and movement chops with the strongest voices around.
This doesn’t mean Bella is finished. It was a fun night of entertainment that keeps you constantly agog at what you see and hear, but when you walked out, there was a question. “What’s it about?” Structurally, it had a main story about Bella and her journey, her tribulations with how blacks and women were treated in the 1800s after emancipation. And we got to see a love story, both about her choice of a man and her love for herself as she learned to accept herself and her culture. Along the way, there were many statements about other groups who were also discriminated against, hated, and abused. Historically, including these groups told us about America after the Civil War. There was even parallel with today’s civil rights issues. But as a dramatic, comedic story, these side stories confused the main theme, which seemed to me to be about Bella and her self-discovery.
While messages about the civil ills of our past, and our present, have an important place in storytelling, Bella’s personal story is universally felt and understood by all audiences. The side trips were fun and, in many ways, beautiful, and their musical expression was just as beautiful as the rest of Childs’ songs, which I sincerely hope are published. But the story of Bella needed to be pared down to build a tighter story with a basic lesson for us all. That message can spur us to infer the rest.
Aside from that, I highly recommend Bella: An American Tall Tale as some of the best entertainment you can find.
Dallas Theater Center
Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Through October 22nd
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 pm
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm
Ticket Prices are $20.00 to $75.00, depending on date, time and seating location.
For info on and tickets: go to www.dallastheatercenter.org or call the box office at 214.880.0202.