Review Roundup: Harvey Fierstein in BELLA BELLA - What Did the Critics Think?

By: Oct. 23, 2019
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Bella Bella

MTC has officially opened Bella Bella, written and performed by four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein (Casa Valentina, Torch Song, Hairspray) and directed by Kimberly Senior (Disgraced, The Niceties).

Fierstein returns to MTC taking on New York City's very own political firebrand, Bella Abzug, in his new raucous, heart-rending and absurdly humorous solo show. Set in 1976, on the eve of her bid to become New York State's first female Senator, Bella Bella finds this larger-than-life, truth-slinging, groundbreaking, hat-wearing icon squirreled away in the bathroom of a midtown hotel awaiting that night's election results while a coterie of family and celebs await her entrance. Directing is Kimberly Senior (The Niceties).

Bella Bella's creative team includes John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design), Rita Ryack (Costume Design), Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design), Jill BC Du Boff (Sound Design), and Caite Hevner (Projection Design).

Let's see what the critics are saying...

Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: And while this reviewer agrees that this diversity issue requires rectification, he'll also consider that to Harvey Fierstein's credit, and he deserves a lot of it as playwright/performer of the very enjoyable and informative Bella Bella, there was a serious search for a woman star to headline the play before the creative team, which includes director Kimberly Senior and consultant Liz Abzug, the honoree's daughter, agreed that he'd be a great match for the role. Indeed, Fierstein is very, very good in a performance that is a tribute, rather than an impersonation. Dressed casually in a black shirt and pants, he offers a brief glimpse of his character modeling her classic wide-brimmed red hat before setting it aside for the rest of his 90-minute monologue.

Jesse Green, The New York Times: Those who have seen Fierstein onstage won't be surprised; they know he's not going to lose a battle for dominance with any author, including himself. He's a big, tasty ham and will do whatever is necessary to make sure you get an ample helping of his warmth and flavor regardless of the role. That's usually a net plus. But in a biographical vehicle like "Bella Bella," which opened on Tuesday at New York City Center Stage I, it unfortunately means someone else is not getting served. In this case, big surprise, it's the woman. Her name may appear twice on the Manhattan Theater Club marquee but neither the anecdotal play nor the droll performance provides the depth of a reasonably thorough obituary.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: What do we take from his 90-minute play? That Abzug was a passionate, conviction politician; that she was a feminist and also beyond any conventional definitions; that she fought-so hard; that she could be difficult, but no more difficult than big personality male politicians, and she rightly called out when she was being judged more negatively for being a woman. Fierstein captures her political savvy, her fierceness, political nous, and sense of fun, wit, and mischief. The one discordant note remains, for this critic at least, the gender mismatch in front of us and the sense that-given how Abzug was a history-maker, convention-challenger, glass ceiling-shatterer, proudly as a woman-a woman might be better placed to play her in Bella Bella.

Greg Evans, Deadline: And if there's a comfort-food element to Abzug's compassionate, common-sense humanism, the same can be said of the man onstage. With the exception of adopting Abzug's Yiddish accent, Fierstein is as much Harvey as Bella, blustering, shouting, emoting and capping many a rant with the sheepish smile that dates back at least to Torch Song Trilogy. Endearing? As always. Rehearsed? Absolutely. Fierstein knows just how to speak to his audience, even if he has to talk over Bella Abzug to do it.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: The commendable spirit behind Harvey Fierstein's big smoochy valentine to the famously feisty lawyer, congresswoman, feminist godmother and hat queen, Bella Abzug, goes a long way toward shifting attention away from the material's shortcomings. But the enormous good will for both the writer-performer and his subject can't disguise the fact that Bella Bella isn't quite a play - at least not one that acquires three-dimensional theatrical life. Still, there are compensations aplenty in sharing the politician's triumphs and frustrations as distilled by Fierstein, an eternally captivating storyteller who sprinkles the fond salute with Yiddishisms, zingers and amusing aphorisms.

Elysa Gardner, New York Stage Review: Fierstein enters in a bright red bowler hat and matching jacket (courtesy of costumer Rita Ryzack), which are quickly put aside; this is not a drag act, but a declaration of empathy and respect. Abzug was among the first members of Congress to not only support but advocate for gay rights, as well as racial justice; her feminist credentials were buttressed by opposition to Senator Joe McCarthy, President Nixon and the Vietnam War. Playing her, the actor/writer aims to capture not specific physical or vocal mannerisms-her New Yawk accent stemmed from the Bronx, his is Brooklyn-bred-but a fighting spirit and biting wit, accompanied by a warmth that shines through, especially when the subject of the monologue turns to loved ones.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: The idea of Fierstein, or any man for that matter, playing Abzug might be jarring, but frankly-it works. And it would work just as well with other actors as Bella too. (Tovah Feldshuh, anyone?) The beautiful thing about Bella Bella is its timing: a fiercely intelligent, outspoken woman fighting for equal rights, civil rights, and abortion rights, blazing her own political trail and creating a legacy that future generations can admire and emulate? We can never see too many of those.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: Dressed in a simple black shirt and pants, with no gesture toward drag, he avoids any hint of burlesque, and his portrait of Abzug is informative and respectful throughout, but there's an unavoidable incongruity in the fact of Fierstein's male presentation. The tradeoff for this is Fierstein himself: He's so distinctive a performer (that dragonish voice! that naughty smile!) and so immensely appealing as Abzug-he gives her a more Yiddish accent than she had in real life, the better to endear himself to the audience with warm Jewish humor-that it's hard to imagine the role being played by anyone else.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Fierstein fans will be happy to learn that Kimberly Senior doesn't direct the star. She lets him retreat into his usual cute shtick. Letting go a zinger, Fierstein crocks his head to the right, sometimes to the left, cueing the laughter with his signature Cheshire-kitty smile even when there's not a giggle in the house. Much more strange, Fierstein portrayal keeps recalling his performance as Teyve in the 2004 Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof."

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