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Review: BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE at Portland Playhouse

This production runs through June 5 at Portland Playhouse.

Review: BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE at Portland Playhouse

You know the stories of Paul Bunyan digging the Grand Canyon and Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees. But have you heard the one about the time Bella Patterson fought off train robbers with her large bottom? Or the one about the time Bella Patterson saved the life of a railway porter by bouncing him down a mountainside on her large bottom?

BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE, Kirsten Childs' 2016 musical now running at Portland Playhouse, offers a new take on American folklore, featuring a new tall tale hero: Bella Patterson, "a woman of mythic proportions and heroic appeal." The musical, set in the 1870s as Bella travels by train from Mississippi to New Mexico, is essentially a string of tall tales featuring Bella and her ample rear end, along with other colorful characters from her highly active imagination (e.g., a Mexican cowboy who woos women through train windows, a Chinese cowboy who does a strip tease, a variety of farm animals and circus performers).

Like many tall tales, the stories also contain elements of truth, namely dealing with the racism of the Jim Crow era. Bella is wanted in her hometown for allegedly beating up a rich white man who tried to sexually assault her. She's traveling to New Mexico in hopes of preserving her freedom and also finding the love of her life, Aloysius T. Hunnicut, who's serving in one of the all-Black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Along the way, she meets African Americans leaving the South for Kansas in hopes of a better life. She also meets a ringmaster who tricks her into joining his circus, which is really a freak show.

You're probably getting the idea that the show BELLA is a bit strange. And you're right. It swings from fantastical situation to fantastical situation, occasionally punctuated with a dose of sobering reality. There were definitely times that I was not clear on exactly what was going on or whether the crazy things that were happening were just in Bella's imagination or plot points in the story. At some point, I gave up worrying about it - after all, all tall tales require a major suspension of disbelief.

The production, directed by Damaris Webb, has a cast of 12, mostly young actors, many of whom I hope to see a lot more of. Lauren Steele (who won a Drammy Award for her performance in the Queen's Girl trilogy at Clackamas Repertory Theatre) and Matthew Sepeda give particularly fine performances. It also features two accomplished vocalists who will likely be familiar to local music fans - jazz vocalist Danielle Barker, who is making her theatrical debut as Bella, and blues and gospel powerhouse LaRhonda Steele (aka "The First Lady of Portland Blues"), who plays Grandma and also Spirit of the Booty.

What all of the performers bring to the table is that they seem to be game for anything, which in a show like this is a must. Whether they're playing real people, imaginary people, spirits, or animals, the cast throws themselves into the moment. (In one instance, this is literally true - Matthew Sepeda delivers the best stage faint I've ever seen.) Overall, the show itself is pretty chaotic, but the performers' willingness to embrace the silly, the weird, and sometimes the downright ridiculous make the production entertaining.

BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE runs through June 5. More details and tickets here:

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