Featuring an energetic, game cast headed by bigger-than-life Ashley D. Kelley as the title character, Bella follows this “big booty Tupelo girl,” as she travels (under an assumed last name) to meet her staid fiancé, Buffalo Soldier Aloysius T. Honeycutt (handsome, sweet voiced Britton Smith) and to escape the law. She meets a slew of fascinating characters—some who really existed and some fictitious—and finds her life taking a surprising turn in her bumpy road to marital bliss.
Bella takes place in the late 1870s and in the Wild West, eastern and southern U.S. and in Europe, making it quite an epic, but a lighthearted epic.
Performed within Clint Ramos’ old-fashioned, gilded proscenium, complete with color drawings of the characters and a huge buffalo head at its zenith, his colorful central set manages to convey a nineteenth century train, a carnival, and even a military base, helped immeasurably by Dede M. Ayite’s brilliant period costumes and Japhy Weideman’s fine, evocative lighting. Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas’ wigs, hair and makeup design are witty and evocative.
Encouraged by three strong black women, her Mama (a fine Kenita R. Miller who also plays the sourpuss Miss Cabbagestalk), her Grandma (a strongly effective NaTasha Yvette Williams who also, later, plays the bizarrely profane Spirit of the Booty who, dressed as an African princess, encourages Bella’s ambitions) and level-headed Aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson), Bella rushes away from Tupelo, Mississippi to avoid being arrested for beating on Bonny Johnny (Kevin Massey, who also doubles as Snaggletooth Hoskins).
Bella’s large silhouette immediately attracts attention as she boards the train where in her fantasies she imagines such characters as a sexy gaucho (Yurel Echezarreta, lithe and funny as he strums his guitar and sings); a Chinese cowboy who manages to strip down to a gold thong (Paolo Montalban, unabashedly sensual and somehow elegant).
There is also a porter (Brandon Gill, whose smooth voice was full of longing) who falls for Bella.
In Act Two, Bella becomes a carnival exhibit because of her rear-end (shades of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus!) and, in the process, finds her place in life. She thoroughly enjoys her new-found fame, despite her anxieties about possibly losing Aloysius, that is until she comes to her senses after a disastrous New York engagement.
The songs, all performed with zest, are gutsy and character-driven with references to cowboy tunes, folk songs, hymns and even a touch of Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs.
Bella could be edited a bit to give it a better flow, but Camille A. Brown’s choreography, enthusiastically performed and Robert O’Hara’s direction keep the large cast and larger-than-life story afloat.
Bella: An American Tall Tale (through July 2, 2017)
Co-World Premiere with Dallas Theater Center
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.ticketcentral.com
For more information, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission