Theater review by Raven Snook
Like its title character's doozy of a derriere, Bella is impossible to ignore. Set in the late 19th-century American West, with an eclectic pastiche score, Kirsten Childs's rollicking musical chronicles the adventures of a curvaceous cutie who's forced to flee her Mississippi hometown. Although Bella (played by the endlessly endearing Ashley D. Kelley) initially hops a train for New Mexico, her gregarious personality and wild imagination keep getting her off-track.
A kindly Pullman porter, a grumpy mail-order bride, a dancing caballero, a wealthy Chinese rancher and the widow of a lynched property owner are some of the colorful characters she meets—or, more to the point, the characters of color. Despite Bella’s tall-tale style, Childs has written it as a historical corrective of sorts; the era she depicts, so central to American history, is often whitewashed. But the show is such a hoot that it never feels didactic.
That’s not to say that it isn’t ungainly. The episodic nature of the first act grows tedious, and the musical’s heavier-handed second half, when our heroine ends up in a circus, recalls Suzan-Lori Parks' recently revived Venus, which is ambitious for a show so campy it features an 11-o'clock number sung by the spirit of Bella's rump. But for the most part it bounces along buoyantly, thanks to Robert O’Hara's smooth direction and go-for-broke actors who also reveal the humanity in their over-the-top characters. Bella's a winner, all butts about it.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). Music, lyrics and book by Kirsten Childs. Directed by Robert O’Hara. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hr 30min. One intermission. Through July 2.