WHAT “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin”
WHERE 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.
INFO $25-$125; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Nikki M. James’ star performance tops wonderful revival.
It feels odd to say that Nikki M. James is giving a star-making performance at City Center. After all, she won a Tony for “The Book of Mormon” and played Eponine in the last go-round of “Les Miz,” so she has Broadway cred.
But James had never carried a show the way she does Kirsten Childs’ musical “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.” She’s onstage pretty much the entire time, and every minute of it she’s an absolute joy to watch.
James’ Viveca is aptly nicknamed “Bubbly” — she’s ebullient and upbeat, and obsessed with becoming a dancer. We first meet her as a happy Los Angeles tween in 1963 (James perfectly captures a child’s speech pattern and body language). We know the date because of a reference to the bombing of an Alabama black church. For the first time, Viveca — who dreams of being white like her doll Chitty Chatty — begins to see what race means in America. And yet her fundamentally sunny disposition endures. She’s like an African-American female version of the happy-go-lucky Candide, off on a quest to find herself as she grows up, briefly hangs out with radical black activists (Childs satirizes blacks and whites equally), then moves to New York to try out for Broadway. A dance class and an audition for director Bob (Josh Davis), a hilariously transparent spoof of Bob Fosse, stand out as terrific comic set pieces.
“The Bubbly Black Girl,” which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 2000, is presented through Thursday, July 27, by Encores! Off-Center, which brings back Off-Broadway musicals in concert versions (this one includes extensive choreography by Byron Easley). Director Robert O’Hara also staged Childs’ latest Off-Broadway musical, “Bella: An American Tall Tale,” this past spring, and the two are clearly simpatico. He brings to the fore the exuberant energy and bright irreverence that make “The Bubbly Black Girl” pop, and helps make it one of the zippiest, funniest shows you can see right now.
And one of the best sung. James is in very fine voice, and she gets sterling support from the ensemble, especially Korey Jackson, with a gorgeous rendition of song about the rush of riding a bike and falling in love is gorgeous, and Julius Thomas III, who deploys a smooth falsetto at key times. It’s highly frustrating that all this effort went into a production that only plays through Thursday, but there you have it: Now is the time for an impromptu jaunt to midtown.