The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” is an awfully long and complicated title for Kirsten Childs’ short, sweet and simple-minded cartoon of a musical, which is making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. A former Broadway dancer who has recently won several musical-theater grants, Childs displays significant promise as a composer of appealing pop and R&B melodies. But on the evidence of this show, she might consider finding a partner to put words to her music: “Bubbly Black Girl’s” trite book and rudimentary lyrics seem to have been written in pink crayon.
Much of the show takes place during the childhood and adolescence of the title character, so Childs’ faux-naif writing is partially intentional, although that doesn’t make it less wearisome.
The musical tells the story of Viveca (LaChanze), all too appropriately nicknamed Bubbly, a young black girl growing up in 1960s L.A. whom we chaperone from her toddler years through high school.
Our heroine arrives at adulthood only in the show’s last half-hour, when Viveca moves to New York to achieve her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
Most of our time is thus spent watching La Chanze, a wonderfully talented actress and singer, squander her talents by giving a cloyingly cute impersonation of a sassy little girl in pigtails.
Wilfredo Medina’s winking direction must also be blamed for her relentlessly overpunctuated performance, highlighted by a blinding ear-to-ear grin and wide eyes radiating determined innocence, both of which remain plastered on Bubbly’s face well into adulthood. (And surely costume designer David C. Woolard could have attired LaChanze in something that didn’t put such neon emphasis on this toddler’s ample bosom.)
Song titles such as “Smile, Smile,” “I Am in Dance Class,” “Sticks and Stones,” “War Is Not Good” and “Beautiful Bright Blue Sky” give some indication of the show’s “Afterschool Special”-ish tone, which awkwardly mixes two cups of sugar with one of satire and another of social commentary.
In her journey to adulthood, the bubbly Bubbly must come to terms with racial prejudice both internal and external. She must learn to hide her misplaced affection for her white Chitty Chatty doll and to abandon her daydreams of growing up to be a pretty white princess.
She must swallow her tears when the lighter-skinned girl in ballet class gets to play Sleeping Beauty, and control her outrage when, in adolescence, the cops terrorize boy-next-door Gregory, thinking he’s a gang thug.
Later she’ll learn that racial stereotyping doesn’t end with childhood, when Director Bob (apparently a stand-in for Bob Fosse, who discovered and nurtured Childs’ career) urges her to read a line without being “so white.”
The musical’s little lessons about the painful effects of racism as seen through the eyes of a perky little girl are certainly well-meant, but they’re never very deeply or authentically explored — this is a show written in exclamation points, some tongue-in-cheek and some not.
The story progresses clumsily, with songs mostly functioning like captions at the bottom of cartoon cels. And at times one uneasily wonders if the caricatures on display here, such as the sloganeering Black Power teens Viveca encounters in adolescence, would be greeted with such comfortable guffaws if they were being presented by a white author.
There are certainly some divertingly bright and clever spots. The aforementioned “I Am a Dancer” is a funny, accurately pitched comic ensemble number that lets four tykes in ballet class sing us their amusingly diverging thoughts (“I wish I could flee to my husband-to-be, Paul McCartney,” sings one).
And if lyrics such as “Dance makes me free/free to be me” can be ignored, Childs’ infectious but often subtly structured R&B riffs, nicely orchestrated by Joe Baker, are thoroughly and consistently enjoyable.
After a few humiliations at the hands of Director Bob, LaChanze’s Viveca finally whips off her pigtail wig, denounces her nickname and loses the mile-wide grin.
“Been wasting time… Thinking that life had to be one big happy mood/Think I’ll change my attitude,” she sings defiantly, and viewers numbed by the show’s ingratiating tone may be roused to attention.
Alas, the curtain comes down just a few minutes later: The show ends just when its heroine starts to get interesting.