Review: ‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin’ Retains Its Relevancy In Today’s Divisive Times
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, July 27, 2017
Encores! Off-Center’s latest offering is a timely staging of an unfortunately little seen musical that has much to say. Efficiently directed here by Robert O’Hara, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin dates from around 1999 when it was produced by Playwrights Horizons. This semi-autobiographical musical, the creation of Kirsten Childs, a former Broadway dancer mentored by Bob Fosse, spans the life of Viveca as she grows from a child in early-60s Los Angeles to an aspiring dancer in New York who gets cast in a Broadway musical by a big-time director named Bob.
Played brilliantly by Nikki M. James, whose résumé (from Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon to Portia in Julius Caesar in Shakespeare in the Park’s recent production) evidences a performer with range; this Viveca is a fleshed out, three-dimensional character, whose journey has resonance. In fact, the musical has become particularly relevant today, as it depicts Viveca’s experiences growing up black in an America rife with problems of racial and identity politics.
The cast is strong across the board. Kingsley Leggs, in the subtly under-written role of Daddy, found moments of parental truth. As Viveca’s friend Gregory, Korey Jackson communicated beautifully. Josh Davis, as an assortment of characters culminating in the satirical Director Bob, and Kenita Miller, as would-be show stopper Granny who advises “You got to have someone on the side,” were key to the evening’s levity.
Childs’s book and lyrics are stronger than her work here as composer. The songs, a wide assortment of styles tending toward pop and R&B, have funny, clever lyrics, but the music tends toward excessive repetition. The choreography was stylishly supportive of the proceedings, but due to endlessly repeating refrains, the storytelling often veered into mere concertizing.
Although the sound design suffered from a certain muddiness, and many of the lyrics were indiscernible, “Come With Me,” sung a cappella with panache by Julius Thomas III and the men, was one highlight. The five-piece orchestra sounded confident with Annastasia Victory leading at the piano with poise, but perhaps less polish and more rambunctiousness is necessary for that ineffable “Off-Broadway” energy.
As evidenced by their recent uneven Assassins, Encores! Off-Center productions must grapple with finding just the right tone in contemporary works, which tend toward irony and satire more than Encores’ traditional repertoire. This would be especially tricky given their necessarily brief rehearsal process, and in this regard O’ Hara and choreographer Byron Easley have been quite successful.
But in experiencing pieces specifically designed for Off-Broadway in the cavernous, tall City Center, one contemplates perennial questions of intimacy and venue, tone and pacing. Here, the rough and tumble aesthetic of Off-Broadway, which connotes a theatrical experience belonging to smaller, perhaps downtown, spaces, can evaporate, and some pieces can lose something in the process. Not that Off-Broadway material cannot address serious subjects, which The Bubbly Black Girl poignantly does. But the largely ersatz score must have seemed more impactful when the audience numbered less than a hundred.
The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin presented by Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, July 26-27, 2017. Music, lyrics and book by Kirsten Childs. Directed by Robert O’Hara; choreography by Byron Easley; musical supervision by Chris Fenwick; music director: Annastasia Victory; scenic design by Donyale Werle; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Cast: Penelope Armstead-Williams, Tanya Birl, Kaitlyn Davidson, Josh Davis, Yurel Echezarreta, Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Korey Jackson, Nikki M. James, Kingsley Leggs, Jo’Nathan Michael, Kenita R. Miller, Julius Thomas III, Shelley Thomas, and Alex Wong.
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Cover: Nikki M. James (front) and (l. to r. back) Lauren E.J. Hamilton, Kenita R. Miller, Penelope Armstead-Williams (behind James) and Tanya Birl in ‘The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin;’ photo: Joan Marcus.