The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Theatre Royal Stratford East ★★★

Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

The maxim “be true to yourself” forms the basis of many a musical. And so it is with Kirsten Childs’s The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, a 2000 off-Broadway hit that follows the “protagonist learns not to succumb to others’ desires” trope so closely it is right there in the title.

The eponymous girl is Viveca, a young black girl growing up in 1960s Los Angeles. Karis Jack’s Young Viveca fully earns the nickname “Bubbly”, being an engaging, lovable bundle of energy. The civil rights struggles of America at the time are present – Viveca is the same age as the four young girls killed in a bomb attack on a black church in Alabama in 1963, and whose photos play out on the set’s video backdrops at several points. As she grows up, she and a boyfriend encounter white LA cops who assume that the pair must be up to criminal activity based only on their skin colour.

Childs’s story rockets through the ages, moving rapidly from the 1960s to 1970s in the first act. Viveca’s passion for dance – she is inspired by Gwen Verdon’s Lola in the film version of Damn Yankees – is a constant presence throughout. Stylistically this provides for a magpie approach, as Childs appropriates, if not downright parodies, many musical theatre stalwarts from Grease to Hair. As Viveca moves to 1980s New York, and Sophia Mackay takes over as an older Viveca, the references switch to Fosse, with Matt Dempsey’s “Director Bob” a clear shout out to the renowned choreographer and director, even if the performance is rather more Roger Debris.

And it is in the second act that director Josette Bushell-Mingo loses control of Bubbly Black Girl’s moral compass. In the first act, Viveca’s lack of black role models and her fleeting encounters with civil rights demonstrate that Childs has something to say about black people’s, and especially black women’s, personal and social identity. Post-interval, though, the show resorts to wild grotesque and broad brush comedy.

Asked not to be ”too white” in an audition, Mackay’s Viveca switches to a broad caricature of a Deep South woman (albeit one whose voice is based on Foghorn Leghorn, a character originally voiced by Mel Blanc). Her performance is so extreme that it elicits whoops of delight from the audience, won over by Mackay’s comedic charms. But there is an implication that such a performance becomes the reason for her (unseen) Broadway success. And in a subsequent audition (for a musical version of Proust, The Kookie Madeleine, a title that may well be the best joke of the whole show) Viveca achieves the revelation that the show’s title has promised all along – rather than acting in ways expected of her to fit in, she will be herself.

The trouble is that there is just not enough sense of Viveca being a chameleon, and of that being a problem, for such an epiphany to feel earned. Nor is there any real moment of crisis for Viveca to respond to with her change of heart. It feels as if that is all there in Childs’ book, but the emphasis on slapstick in the second act buries it far too deep down.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, The Bubbly Black Girl’s rattle through several American musical theatre tropes does deliver much in the way of humour, and Mykal Rand’s choreography ensures that the musical is never boring to look at. But in a world where civil rights struggles feel more relevant than ever before, where the hard-earned rights gained in the 1960s are at risk from people who would like to roll them back, it is supremely disappointing that this production pulls its punches.

Ran until 11 March.