Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Don’t be scared by the verbose title:Bubbly Black Girl is a surprisingly traditional musical coming of age story. The spirited cast takes us from Los Angeles in the early ’60s to New York in the mid-’90s in a series of musical scenes loosely based on the life of playwright/composer/lyricist Kirsten Childs. Childs first hit the stage as a Broadway dancer, eventually starring in Chicago opposite Chita Rivera. Becoming frustrated with the roles available to African-American actors, she turned her talents to writing.
Bubbly Black Girl follows the story of Viveca, a black woman not entirely unlike Childs, who finds life much easier to navigate with a smile and a “bubbly” exterior. Eventually, her experiences growing up in the civil rights era and struggling to succeed as a Broadway dancer call into question the wisdom of living behind this façade. As the title promises, by the eleven o’clock number we see her shed her “chameleon skin” and commit herself to living with integrity.
Jacqui Parker, the star of last year’s Caroline, or Change, has stepped into the director’s spot for this outing. Along with choreographer David Connolly, she’s put together a show that dances from scene to scene, era to era with grace befitting a show written by a dancer. Connolly makes good use of period dance steps to convey the passage of time, and he gives us a couple of delightful set pieces showing off the entire cast.
Stephanie Umoh, as Viveca, is on stage for almost the entire intermissionless show. While she sings and acts well, she’s not particularly convincing as a dancer, and she never quite achieves the luminosity of star quality called for by the role. She’s entertaining, but not nearly magnetic enough to carry this show on her back.
Her job is made a bit harder by the terrific supporting cast, many of whom prove to be far more interesting than the leading lady in the scenes they share with her. Anich D’Jae, as Viveca’s friend Emily, exhibits expert comic timing as she teaches her friend the new rules for courting in the age of Black Power. Jaime Cepero II similarly steals the spotlight as Viveca’s love interest, Gregory. From his very funny turn as the only little boy in Viveca’s childhood dance class to his more adult declaration of love in the number “Beautiful Bright Blue Sky,” Cepero is a magnetic presence on stage. Towards the end of the show, Trecia Reavis brings down the house with “Granny’s Advice,” a show-stopping blues number.
The cast is ably supported by a tight five-piece band under the direction of José Delgado. John R. Malinowski’s evocative lighting and Eric Levenson’s minimal set pieces skillfully convey the variety of locations called for by the script. Seth Bodie’s costumes are at times delightful, especially when he takes the opportunity for exaggeration, such as in the hippie and Black Power scenes. However, his clothes for Umoh are distractingly ill-fitting, and some of the wigs employed make the women of the cast look like drag-queens parodies of the ’70s.
The biggest problem inherent in the show is one that Parker never quite solves. The play is not nearly as edgy or adventuresome as one might expect from the title. And that title also tells us exactly how the play will end, so the director’s challenge is making the journey there as captivating as possible. And, despite some great supporting performances and a few excellent numbers, Bubbly Black Girl never quite sheds its own theatrical skin to become something greater.
SpeakEasy Stage Company presents The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, now through December 9 at the BCA Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Tickets and times atBostonTheatreScene.com, 617-933-8600, or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office, 527 Tremont Street.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo