Wild West stories are a dime a dozen, but I can guarantee that you’ve never seen anything fresher or more completely original as Kirsten Childs’ Bella: An American Tall Tale. Childs, who provided the book, music, and lyrics, has turned the traditional tale of Cowboys and Native Americans completely on its head. Our leading player in the Playwrights Horizons production is not a Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne type. Instead, it is a beautiful and buxom African-American named Bella (Ashley D. Kelley). Her real last name is “Patterson” but after a tangle with Bonny Jonny Rakehill (Kevin Massey) she boards a train, changes her surname to “Johnson”, and attempts to escape her past.
What ensues is literally beyond belief, partly due to Bella’s vivid imagination and partially because Childs has been given free rein to create the most outlandish scenarios- all in the spirit of tall tale lore. Like any great western, it covers the basic elements: intrigue, romance, run-ins with the law, exploitation, and danger.
Yet Childs takes her piece even further with social, racial, and political commentary—and she does it in such a crafty way that leaves audiences both entertained and richly nourished. For although her leading lady is Bella, the main attraction is what is…er…um…”behind” her. It is, in fact, Bella’s booty.
Childs’ inspiration for the story was spawned by Sarah Baartman, an African woman with buttocks so large, she was used as a freak show attraction in 19th century Europe and was dubbed “Hottentot Venus.” More recently, Childs noticed an attractive African-American lady walking down the street whose notable asset stole focus from everyone she passed. She set the wheels in motion to write a significant musical that carefully straddles the line of celebration and objectification—and succeeds. For the most part, the show moves along at a solid pace and musically, it offers some terrific tunes which range from the expected country-western to funk.
Should it transfer, however, the creative team might be better served by trimming some excess. With many shows hovering around the 90-100 minute mark, audience attention spans can wane and Ms. Childs could easily tighten her material with a few cuts.
There are too many fun and outrageous surprises to divulge here, but thanks to director Robert O’Hara and a finely tuned cast, Bella is one beautiful booty worth getting behind.
Bella: An American Tall Tale is currently Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons through July 2nd (West 42nd between 9th and 10th). For tickets and information, click here.