The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin
The play begins in the early 1960s in LA--just after three black girls died in a church bombing in the South. Viveca, whom all the neighborhood kids call Bubbly, is a smart, popular girl with "two parents in the home and not a welfare check in sight." She tells her blond hair, blue eye doll Chitty Chatty her dream of having her hair go straight after being kissed by a prince, but when Daddy comes in, pretends to be teaching her dark skinned dolly about Harriet Tubman. In junior high Viveca is labeled an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) by her fellow African-American students. In high school Viveca first dates a white hippie (much to Mommy's consternation), and then tries to hang with the afro-sporting swingers.
Not really fitting in anywhere, Viveca decides to go "where f**ked-up people go to make their dreams come true": New York. The second half of the intermission-free play--punctuated by a jazzy solo in which LaChanze, the actress playing Viveca, really gets to strut her stuff--takes place in New York. Viveca starts out as a secretary, in a sassy musical number in which floor panels fold back to create desks within the stage (an inspired design solution from David Gallo) and the secretaries sing about needing "a Stoli, a screw, and a two-week vacation." After endless dance classes, an unwitting musical theater audition, and a stint as the "other woman", ever-bubbly Viveca eventually sheds her chameleon skin.
Issues included, this is a feel-good show--a show about feeling good about being who you are. The music (by Childs, along with the lyrics and book) is upbeat and catchy, a mix of pop, jazz, and Motown. The lyrics are smart and sassy. LaChanze does a good job playing kid-Viveca, gives her a welcomed maturity when she moves to New York, and a welcomed grounded-ness when she sheds her skin. The rest of the ensemble is energetic, and excellent at making quick transitions between an array of characters. It was a treat to see a cast reflect not only a whole range of skin colors, but also of body types.
Director Wilfredo Medina has been with Bubbly Black Girl... since its earliest inception at Dixon Place. And it shows, in his caring direction and in his sensitivity to the show's subtle shifts in tone. A.C. Ciulla, fresh off of Footloose, does a commendable job choreographing--both musical numbers and transitions--in the limited space of Playwrights Horizons' stage (which requires the musicians to be behind the backdrop rather than fore-grounded in a pit). Gallo's set elements are, as always, artfully spare and consistently on-spot.