Loony Tunes

Strange musicals about black birds and black skin

If I have learned one thing in theater this past year, it is this: Black birds are especially natty. First there was Bradley Greenwald's dapper crow in the Children's Theatre Company's The Snow Queen, who sported a tuxedo-styled black topcoat and a white vest emblazoned with oversized letters--as though a page from a storybook had been wrapped around his chest. In Theater Latté Da's current production of New York Musical Shorts, Julie Madden and Joe Kolbow play blackbirds who share a battered elegance. Costumed by Jeannie Galioto, both are decked out in long black coats and black feather boas, Kolbow also donning a crushed top hat and a long cane topped with an egg-shaped handle. All of the above could be revelers at some goth-themed fetish ball--although all pay a price for their elegance. Greenwald is set upon by knife-wielding bandits in The Snow Queen, while Madden and Kolbow must contend with a shotgun-wielding farmer in Musical Shorts.

Madden and Kolbow's blackbirds appear in a particularly odd musical number titled "The Weather," written by two musical-theater writing graduates from New York University, Tim Nevits and Ivy Hardy. Despite this pair's Big Apple credits, their story is set on a failing cabbage farm in Iowa, and tells of a boy (played by Joe Leary) who one day learns he can speak the language of birds. It is a funny and eccentric little story, one of five selected by director Peter Rothstein. The remainder, by other authors, are equally curious. The tales here include a sung monologue about the botched history of blood transfusion, an Edgar Allan Poe story, a look at the fracturing of a romantic relationship when a gay couple adopts a poodle, and a poetic musing on the dream life of Parisians.

Doggy style: Julie Madden and Joe Leary talk to the animals in 'Musical Shorts'
Donna Leto
Doggy style: Julie Madden and Joe Leary talk to the animals in 'Musical Shorts'

With the exception of the rather humorless Poe piece, Rothstein directs these musical shorts with a welcome lightness. He has on hand some very funny performers, particularly in the persons of Joe Leary, who has a vast repertory of scowling faces, and Madden, who has a talent for the unexpected line reading. Playing a soused mother in the poodle sequence, she stops the show with her caustic, barely comprehensible delivery of a throwaway line, "Maybe it's not about the dog."

The music in this collection, played on piano (with occasional violin and guitar accompaniment), is uniformly good, although it's often a little twee. This often seems to be the case in musical theater, where composers can't seem to help but give in to their more precious instincts. A notable exception to this generalization can be found in the musical number "The Skate" in Illusion Theater's The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, written and composed by Kirsten Childs and directed by Michael H. Robins. The song is sung by Aimee K. Bryant, who possesses one of the two or three really outstanding voices in Twin Cities musical theater. And it's just a great soul number, soaring without any reliance on gimmickry.

Black Girl is the semi-autobiographical tale of Childs, who is a Broadway dancer of some renown, and, coincidentally, is also an alumnus of NYU's musical-theater writing program. This might also explain her oddball storytelling sensibilities: This show shares both a dark tone and a goofy sense of humor with "The Weather" from Musical Shorts. Childs's musical opens with a newspaper account of four black girls who died in a burning church in Selma. But as seen through the eyes of Childs's onstage doppelgänger (played by Bryant), the event is taken as evidence that there is something innately wrong with darker skin.

It must be pointed out that Bryant's character is a very young girl at this moment, favoring her white Chitty Chatty doll over a darker-skinned version and dreaming of a day when she will simply grow out of her own dark skin--a viewpoint that even her doll insists is "fucked up." Ultimately, Black Girl is a singular look at the confusing and contradictory experience of race in this country, where a black mother will flatten her daughter's hair with a hot metal comb while her white boyfriend insists that nappy hair is more beautiful, and where an African-American performer is only able to audition for a "black" role by channeling the stuttering Southernisms of Foghorn Leghorn.

 
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