ON THE RECORD: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and Molaskey's "Sitting in Limbo"

News   ON THE RECORD: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and Molaskey's "Sitting in Limbo"
This week's CD column discusses the premiere recording of Kirsten Child's The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin and Jessica Molaskey's new album, "Sitting in Limbo."


Bubbly is the nickname of the leading character in Kirsten Childs' musical memoir of sorts, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. And bubbly is the operative word, at least in the show's livelier moments. Childs tells of a black girl – yes, a bubbly black girl with "a twinkle in her eye, a bounce in her step, and a 'have a nice day' smile" – growing up in Los Angeles. Viveca Stanton inhabits a color-blind middle class world, facing life with a bright smile and a bubbly disposition. Race doesn't matter in the least, she is taught; you are who you are, and you're treated accordingly. So what if four little girls are killed in a church bombing, down in Birmingham (the action begins in 1963)? That's Alabama, a world away from our heroine.

The chameleon Viveca progresses from a happy childhood smack into the brick wall of reality. She moves to New York, where she becomes a Fosse dancer. (Childs appeared in the national company of Chicago and the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity.) In the end, or rather midway through the second act, Viveca learns that her bubbly exterior is strangling her, and she resolves to make the required adjustments. And to shed her chameleon skin at last.

All of this makes for a lively enough story of growing up in America in the latter half of the century. What makes The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin of immediate interest, though, is the score. Childs is not your traditional theatre writer; she works in a very different style but demonstrates a refreshing sound of her own. Irrepressibly bubbly at times but almost always intriguing, switching style and mood from number to number; with a sharp sense of humor and a feel for the unexpected, both lyrically and musically. She also has a tendency to overlay vocal lines, which lends a unique sound to her score. Thus The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin keeps you listening for what comes next.

Childs' musical was presented by Playwrights Horizons back in June 2000, as the final offering of the season in which they gave us James Joyce's The Dead. Unlike the Joyce musical, Bubbly was unable to transfer, and closed after a four-week run. Six years later, Ghostlight Records and Playwrights Horizons joined to fund this studio cast recording. Most of the original cast is represented, centered around LaChanze as the girl of the title. Also standing out are Darius de Haas, Jerry Dixon, Natalie Venetia Bencon, Angel Desai, Felicia Finley and more. The seven-piece orchestra is conducted by Fred Karl, repeating his Playwrights assignment. (The recording orchestrations are by Curtis Moore, who is not credited for the original production.) Childs and her Bubbly won a Richard Rodgers development award, as well as an Edward Kleban Award and grants from the Jonathan Larson and Rockefeller Foundations, a series of accolades which might have seemed a tad excessive at the time. As someone who missed the show during its brief run, though, I'm glad to finally get the chance to hear The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.

It is becoming mighty difficult to write about Jessica Molaskey, who has just favored us with her fourth solo album from PS Classics. How many ways can you say wonderful? Molaskey has a voice that is at once soothing and invigorating. High musicality mixed with intelligent word delivery, or acting if you will; that's what Ms. Molaskey gives us.

"Sitting in Limbo" it's called, after the song by Jimmy Cliff. The selections encompass any number of styles; titles range from 1920 to today, with songwriters running the gamut from Irving Caesar to Sting. And that's some gamut! This is a singer who seems to be at home in all eras; or maybe she and partner/producer/husband John Pizzarelli are simply expert at picking suitable material. They give us "Heavy Cloud, No Rain" (by the aforementioned Sting) and the oldie "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," as well as Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones" and Harry Warren's "There Will Never Be Another You."

These are unlikely songs to find in such close proximity, but as performed by Molaskey and her typically exceptional band – Larry Goldings and Larry Fuller on piano, John and Martin Pizzarelli on guitar and bass, Harry Allen on sax and Tony Tedesco on drums – they combine for an album as satisfying as "Pentimento," "A Good Day" and "Make Believe." (That is, Molaskey's three prior CDs.) Molaskey & Pizzarelli also make a little room for the contemporary songwriting team of Molaskey & Pizzarelli; "Knowing You," a wry look at modern-day relationships, is especially charming.

The couple merge for a pair of interwoven duets. Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" is wedded with Antonio Jobim's "Waters of March," resulting in a highly effective marriage. Also included is a smashing combination of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar's two "Happy" hits, "I Want to Be Happy" and "Sometimes I'm Happy." Jessica and John devised this rapid-fire love-hate arrangement for last spring's engagement at the Algonquin, and I'm thrilled to now have it on my CD-player. (They include an extra dollop of "Get Happy," which if I'm not mistaken, has been added since the Algonquin.)

My only complaint is that we don't get to see Molaskey in the theatre anymore; hers was a memorable presence in Dream, Songs for a New World, Man of No Importance and elsewhere. Fans, though, can hear Molaskey and Pizzarelli in person at the Carlyle through May 26. (While New York niteries can be pricey, there is no food minimum for this engagement – which keeps the tariff down to a relatively reasonable level.) The act, which includes two selections from "Sitting in Limbo," is a total treat; you feel like you're sitting not in their living room but in the kitchen with Jessica and John and guitar. They sing, joke, spar and offer an hour's entertainment that would seem mighty homey if not for the expert vocalizing and scatting.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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