THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 6th April, 2017
A co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, this new version of Kirsten Childs’s appealing musical froths with effervescence, like champagne. But, as our protagonist demonstrates, there’s a nasty undertone to life and all she can do is to move on to the next frothy moment. Viveca “Call me Bubbly” Stanton spends her life trying to be liked. We see her go from childhood dreams of being a world-famous dancer and being white to trying to fit in with flower power and the growing black consciousness, to auditioning for Broadway roles, and so on, all before she at last fulfils the promise of the show’s title and quits trying to blend in and be herself.
The first act is set in L.A. and begins when a very young Bubbly (a perky Karis Jack) learns of the deaths of four young girls in Alabama, bombed while they were at church. It’s a scarring moment – and motivates Bubbly’s ‘chameleon’ nature. She doesn’t want the same fate to befall her. Karis Jack is a mass of energy, with a sweet voice and broad smile – you can’t help liking her; Bubbly’s delusions, dreams and ambitions are her shields against the racial intolerance and hate crimes in her world. The second act follows Bubbly to New York City where the role is taken over by Sophia Mackay, who belts out her more soulful numbers. Both actors are immensely talented, vocally and comedically. And so we get two leading ladies for the price of one, which can’t be bad.
The score is irresistible – there’s not a duff number in it. Musically, it’s a lot like Hair with a touch of Little Shop of Horrors. Mykal Rand’s choreography evokes each decade of Bubbly’s story as much as Rosa Maggiora’s costumes. Childs’s lyrics sparkle with wit and her book tends to keep matters light – this is musical theatre, after all. Hairspray deals with civil rights issues more directly – here we see the individual’s response – in NYC, Bubbly faces discrimination more directly and, until her metaphoric skin-shedding, adapts to accommodate it, cranking up the stereotype in order to be accepted.
Trevor A. Toussaint as Bubbly’s Daddy has a deep rich voice I could listen to all night, while Sharon Wattis as Bubbly’s more pragmatic Mommy shares a searing duet with her daughter that gives rise to chills. Llandyll Gove amuses as a fairytale prince and as dippy hippy Cosmic Rainbow. Jessica Pardoe is striking as Bubbly’s childhood doll (white, of course!) Chitty Chatty, and later as a succession of dance teachers. Shelley Williams almost stops the show dispensing Granny’s Advice, a rousing, gospel-like number, and Jay Marsh’s Gregory shows incredible vocal range. The orchestrations by musical director Jordan Li-Smith convince with their authentic sounds across the timespan of the story.
It’s a hugely enjoyable piece with plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs. It also has something to say to us in this benighted age, by showing us the psychological devastation of racism on a child. Growing up black in a white world has much in common with growing up queer in a straight one (that’s a dissertation for someone else to write!) – we see the consequences of prejudice and hate, blighting Bubbly’s life before she’s started to live it. The show doesn’t browbeat us with its message but is nonetheless powerful for its apparent lightness.