BWW Review: Kirsten Childs' THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN Tackles Racial Identity Issues
Connoisseurs of American musical theatre wishing to make a point about the genre's ability to dramatize even the most unlikely of subjects often cite examples like SWEENEY TODD's vengeful barber on a killing spree or THE PAJAMA GAME's labor/management dispute, but bookwriter/lyricist/composer Kirsten Childs may have topped them all in 2000 when Playwrights Horizons premiered THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN.
Inspired by her own experiences growing up as an aspiring dancer in 1960s Los Angeles before arriving in New York and making her Broadway debut in the ensemble of the 1986 revival of SWEET CHARITY, Childs' first musical tackles social politics as it applies to racial identity issues, skillfully blending sweet humorous moments with painful ones that comment on societal prejudices.
Her Obie-winning music spreads though popular styles of the late 20th Century, including girl group pop, funk, soul, gospel and showtune while telling the story of Viveca, a bubbly black girl we first see spending her childhood immersed in world dominated by white popular culture.
As she tells her belovEd White doll, Chitty Chatty (modeled after pull-the-string-and-she-talks Chatty Cathy), little Viveca happily dreams of being a fairy tale princess who marries the white prince who rescues her from the curse of being black. But after watching Gwen Verdon dance in the film version of DAMN YANKEES, she seeks a more obtainable goal.
Advised by her father that a smile is the best defense against life's challenges, Viveca, nicknamed Bubbly, keeps her spirits high in ballet class, where she learns that the light-skinned student will get to dance the leading role despite her dark-skinned friend being the best in the class.
Her effervescent personality is attacked by the label "Oreo" in junior high and in college she adopts a militant attitude to blend in with the other black students.
While perusing her dream in New York, Bubbly's talent wins her a spot on Broadway, though she can't quite figure out what the director means when he asks her to be more black. After learning a bit more about the way things are, she understands completely what it means when the same director asks her to be less dark.
Judging from the audience's response to Encores! Off-Center's concert production, it seems THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN hasn't lost a spec of relevance seventeen years later. Though many scenes were staged with actors reading their scripts from music stands, Director Robert O'Hara's fast-moving production nailed Childs' satirical bite while embracing the personal drama of a woman who learns to demand acceptance for the person she chooses to be.
A Tony winner for THE BOOK OF MORMON, Nikki M. James has built a solid reputation as a skilled supporting player, but as Viveca, she positively sparkled with poise and confidence in a leading role that had her onstage for most of the evening.
Beginning as a realistically spunky tween and slowing maturing through the first act, James hit her irresistible stride in the second half, as a young woman dancing with cool Fosse-style sultriness as she sings of how her knowledge of dancers to emulate grew from just Gwen Verdon to include idols like Chita Rivera and Gregory Hines. (The fine character-driven choreography was by Byron Easley.)
Josh Davis was a standout as Director Bob, the Fosse clone who both gives Viveca her big break and limits her artistic growth by having her play roles though his white vision of black characters. Davis was also very funny in the first act as her psychedelically-minded college boyfriend.
Korey Jackson was warm and charming as Viveca's childhood friend who stays loyal to her throughout her journey, and who in one significant scene becomes the target of a police officer's racial profiling. Kenita R. Miller delivered a high point as Viveca's granny, belting a rousing gospel number with some unexpected relationship advice.
With the Off-Broadway run of her latest musical, BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE, recently completed, THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN helps intensify the spotlight on Kirsten Childs and her unique position as a woman of color writing the book, music and lyrics for musicals that not only entertain, but take a strong stance on social issues.