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June 12, 2017
Review: Bella: An American Tall Tale
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

"History is just a tall tale," sings the chorus in Bella: An American Tall Tale - a new musical from Kirsten Childs (directed by Robert O'Hara at Playwrights Horizons). It's a point that's been made before: the version of history we learn in school is manufactured, and there are a lot of stories that get left out of it.

Bella imagines one of those stories: the story of a young black woman heading out West in the 1870s. On her journey, she encounters many characters who don't get their own features in the history books: buffalo soldiers, Chinese cowboys, mail order brides, and caballeros (to name a few). But the main story belongs to Bella: a girl with an imagination almost as big as her booty.

Lest you think I'm being insensitive here, allow me to point out that the main plot hinges on the size of Bella's derriere, and the script includes countless jokes on that subject (often very cleverly arranged). In this tall tale, Bella is a larger than life figure (in more ways than one) akin to American legends like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. In the spirit of those classic American tall tales, Bella succeeds as a delightfully imaginative, spirited story that fuses reality and fiction to such a degree that we're not entirely sure which is which - or if it even matters.

In the title role, Ashley D. Kelley leads a cast brimming with energy and enthusiasm. As the bubbly, imaginative Bella, Kelley infuses this tall tale with warmth and charm, keeping the story grounded even in its most ridiculous moments with her portrayal of Bella's tender, un-exaggerated heart.

As you'd expect from a musical set in the Wild West, Bella features plenty of fancy footwork and rowdy, colorful dance numbers. My personal favorites were the buffalo soldier dance sequence and the "Wagon Driver's Song/Tommie Haw" medley - both rousing, exciting numbers with great choreography executed by great dancers.

If you're only into weighty, Arthur Miller-esque drama, Bella probably isn't your speed. While it definitely touches on serious subject matter, Bella is for the most part a wild, whimsical ride filled with moments of extreme silliness. Not that that's a bad thing - actually, I think we probably need more silly theatre. And Bella's particular brand of endlessly clever, satisfying silliness strikes just the right chord.

I often felt frustrated when I couldn't tell the difference between what was "real" in the play and what only happened in Bella's imagination. Later, I realized it didn't matter. We don't pause midway through the story of Paul Bunyan to stress over whether or not Babe the Blue Ox really existed; we just accept the story. There's a similar principle behind theatre. So just roll with it. Roll all the way to the edge of the frontier, to the edge of reality. Or just bounce there with the help of Bella's enormous booty. And if you're wondering, yes, that actually happens in the play...or does it?

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Review: Mankind

By Bill Crouch

Man is not kind in Mankind, but he’s funny, at least. Robert O’Hara, whose play is currently in residence at Playwrights Horizons, emphatically states this idea in his director’s notes. “I’ve been thinking about Mankind…has man EVER been kind?” The answer we discover is yes, but only for monetary gain. In O’Hara’s satirical and provocative play, we see our future, a dark nihilistic place where men’s toxicity has destroyed a woman’s ability to live. Women have been wiped from the face of the earth, so now, men have babies. At the play’s opening Jason finds he is pregnant with Mark’s child (called, as all newborns are, a Cry-Baby). Jason and Mark attempt to have an abortion and here is where the plot thickens with alarming plausibility: The child turns out to be a girl Cry-Baby, the first female child to be born since the extinction of women, and all three are immediately imprisoned (to keep the baby safe, of course). The newborn and her family are locked away from the world, celebrities and prisoners of the state at the same time. Mark and Jason accidentally give rise to a new religion, Feminism, which becomes more and more macabre in its dealings with mankind, and they continue t …Read more

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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