July 29, 2017

"The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin" Didn't Get Time to Show Off Its Star

It may seem silly to talk about The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin because it was scheduled for just two performances this past week, half the usual five or six-show run for productions in the Encores! Off-Center series. But I'm going to talk about it anyway because the show deserved more time, if only for Nikki M. James' scintillating performance in the title role.

The Off-Center series specializes in musicals that had short runs off-Broadway. Bubbly Black Girl, a semi-biographical show that debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000, was completely written (book, lyrics and music) by Kirsten Childs, one of the few black women to have any success as a creator of musicals (click here to read an interview with her).

Her show tells the story of a middle-class black girl who grew up in Los Angeles sheltered from the heat of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and dreaming about a career on Broadway. But she's still traumatized enough by events like the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls her age that she fantasizes about becoming white and safe.  

In the second act, our heroine, whom everyone calls Bubbly, moves to New York intent on becoming a Broadway dancer, as Childs herself once was. Through it all, she struggles to deflect any hostilities (be it a belligerent cop or a casting director who wants her to act more black) by smiling and being agreeable. Until one day she can't keep up the pretense any longer.

The show's score is a pleasing pastiche of show tunes and soul jams that aptly capture the African-American experience during the latter half of the 20th century, from an amusing paean to the blonde talking doll Chatty Cathy to a silky seduction number "Come With Me" that Motown's Marvin Gaye might have recorded during his sexual-healing phase.

But the book is a patchy collection of vignettes that director Robert O'Hara couldn't find a way to knit into a satisfying whole. The ending seemed to come out of nowhere. And like apparently just about everyone else in the opening-night audience, I didn't know how to react when the bouncy number about the white doll ended with photos of the actual little girls killed in Birmingham.

I'd blame that clunkiness on the short week or so of rehearsals that Encores! shows typically get, but O'Hara had similar problems when he staged Childs' even more whimsical musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, which had a month-long run at Playwrights Horizons in the spring (click here to read about it).

And yet so many of Bubbly Black Girl's individual parts were so enjoyable in themselves that I almost didn't mind the herky-jerky nature of the overall show. Plus, I got a kick out of its loving send-up of Bob Fosse, with whom Childs worked.

The production, which included completely different costumes for Acts I and II and a simple but witty set, seemed particularly polished for a two-night venture, which I suppose might suggest a future for the show. Which would be great because as I've already said more people should get to see James' performance.

The Tony she won for The Book of Mormon already attests to James' talents but her singing, dancing and comedic chops are even more ingratiating here, making Bubbly someone you truly root for. The character's idol is Gwen Verdon and I think James would be terrific in some of Verdon's iconic roles, particularly the title character in Sweet Charity.

Bubbly Black Girl brought out more black folks than I usually see at Encores! performances, including what looked to be a group of some older church ladies who surrounded my sister Joanne and me and laughed as heartily as the rest of us at the show's raunchiest lines.

It's really a shame that the show closed before they could get to church on Sunday and urge other members of their congregation to check it out.

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