Kirsten Childs’ high spirits are infectious. “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” a musical folk tale having its premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is her irresistible invitation to kick up your heels. Set in 19th-century America and performed in music-hall style, the show features bubbly Ashley D. Kelley, who originated the role at the Dallas Theater Center, as a full-figured Southern gal who heads West to escape her colorful past and find a man worthy of her queenly stature.
In director Robert O’Hara’s production, Clint Ramos’s vintage-postcard set reconfigures Playwrights’ mainstage theater as a frontier music hall with glowing footlights, a modest turntable and a rich curtain to frame Bella’s adventures. The robust heroine is adorable, and in “Big Booty Tupelo Gal,” Bella (Kelley) and her male admirers salute her physical attributes. “That ain’t no bustle, that’s my derriere,” sings Bella.
It seems that Bella’s big bustle got her in trouble back home in Tupelo, when she beat up Bonny Johnny Rakehell (Kevin Massey, the villain you love to hiss) and found a bounty on her sweet head. So her Mama (Kenita R. Miller) and Grandma (NaTasha Yvette Williams) bundled her on the train to Kansas City to meet her fiance, Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), a Buffalo soldier in the Union army. But there are many miles betwixt Tupelo and Kansas City, and on the way, generous Bella finds plenty of admirers to appreciate her charms.
Brandon Gill is a standout as Nathaniel Beckworth, the lanky train porter who sings, dances, and twinkles with charisma. “I got a wild imagination,” Bella tells Nathaniel, who does his best to protect the “itty bitty girl” from overzealous admirers. But men are just naturally drawn to Bella, so she finds herself fending off admirers like Diego Moreno (Yurel Echezarreta), a Mexican cowboy “(Quien fiera luna!”) and a rich cattle baron named Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban). She joins the circus (“Bide a Little Time at the Circus”), becomes a star, tastes the world (“Trav’lin the World”), and eventually chooses to go back home (“Heaven Must Be Tupelo”).
Although our heroine’s picaresque adventures are the heart and soul of the show, Childs doesn’t neglect the other characters. “Mama, Where Did You Go?” is a lovely song that Bella’s mother sings to her own mother. “Don’t Start No Sh–” is a fun ditty for the Buffalo Soldiers.” “Nothin’ But a Man” beautifully expresses Nathaniel’s inner thoughts and hidden feelings, and “The Language of My Nose and Lips and Hair” is a stirring feminist anthem for Grandma (Williams, who doubles as the Spirit of the Booty who inspires Bella with pride) and all the women in her family.
The fun of the show would seem to depend on the wild tales that Bella spins out of her fertile imagination. But when her journey finally comes to an end, Bella has made a great discovery about herself. “Don’t matter which one of them tall tales is true,” she says. “The end of the story is, the only one a strong black woman can depend on is herself.”