Pictured: Vanessa Burke, Nicole Patullo, and Cara S. Liander in a scene from Betty & The Belrays (photo © Jonathan Slaff)
In an era of civil rights upheaval and limited job options for women, a 60s white female singing group sign on to a black record label with anti-racist harmonies and women's liberation sentiments in tow. With the semblance and mood of a Motown concert, this musical succeeds in entertaining, but the production can benefit from some tweaking and the civil rights theme can use some amplifying.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
With mini vinyl records suspended from the ceiling and adorning some of the costumes, it was immediately clear that drama and substance would take a back seat to the music in writer and director William Electric Black's Betty and the Belrays. It's not to say that the story is non-existent. The ennui and disagreement with the social and labor conditions of 1963 for Betty Belarosky (Nicole Patullo) is set up with her entrance. What proceeds to happen, however, is a "cautious" exploration of these themes through comical melodies and occasionally profound dialogue.
I understand that musicals are by nature, light in some respects to preserve the entertainment value. And entertain Betty and the Belrays does. In Theater for the New City's intimate space, the melodies bounce off of the walls and reverberate throughout the room because the cast can really sing. However, with such explosive themes as equal rights and women's liberation, I was expecting a more profound discussion to accompany the song and dance numbers. Instead, concern for power to the people is in the form of Betty's constant whining and elevated voice and Loretta Jones' (Verna Hampton) quasi-stern instruction of the girl group in soul music and it's origins. By selecting social issues as the crux of this musical, Black has a responsibility to represent these issues in a way that extends past songs such as “Ooh baby, baby get a job” and “My boyfriend is a Negro”, but doesn't rise to the challenge. The plot is lightly-invested in the consequences of their activism, but it never dwells there long enough to have a strong impact.
1963 is captured well with great costumes, great energy, and family fun. The substance of dreams is also aptly staged, with a wonderful scene where Betty wins tickets to a doo-wop show and engages her family in the moves and the grooves of the music. Here, the action is effectively sliced to represent the DJ, Sam the Beat (an electrifying Levern Williams), a vibrant singing group, and her family all at once. The phrases and some of the dialogue is cheesy, but in a pleasing way that you'd expect from reliving the 60s.
Where the options are “day job, factory job, getting married. Pick one”, Betty Belarosky aims to surpass what is expected of her and follow her own path. Nicole Patullo plays the loud, sarcastic brat well and every step taken in her character's shoes is with pep. As Zip Gun, Vanessa Burke is part dolt and part bulldog, and her perpetual, mischievous grin makes it funny to hear her break into song. As Connie Anderson, Cara S. Liander is a great buffer between Betty's spirited demeanor and Zip Gun's subdued one. Her boy-crazy presence is charming, and when she voices concern about the animosity generated from their social-activist songs, she reflects self-preservation and fears that are justified. As a group, Betty and the Belrays' voices blend well, and Black's lyrics amuse us as much as their vocal skills do. However, I think they need to work on the choreography as there are noticeable mistakes and they are not in sync. Although the least skilled vocally, Chris Reber (Joe Belarosky and Rex Rogers) and Lucille Duncan (Mary Belarosky) are mesmerizing and are welcome in their parental resistance and nostalgic indulgence, respectively.
Technically, the scene changes need to be tighter. There are several instances where the cast leaves the stage after a musical number, and no one is left but the impressive live band to finish with an instrumental. These “false ends” have no place in a play, and reinforce the idea that this show is much more concert than drama. It not only stalls the show, but makes no pretense to conceal the costume changes that are surely happening offstage. The reprisal of “Ooh baby, baby get a job” seems lazy and unnecessary as the group's sentiments about the female profession are already voiced in other areas. Despite Black stepping in to hype up the crowd as the master of ceremonies in the beginning, there isn't an overwhelming sense of audience engagement in this musical. One of the ways this is exhibited is their lackluster response to Verna Hampton's call for an “Amen” from the crowd. With a revisit of the themes and the production, there is no reason why the audience can't be just as excited about this show as the writer and director is.
Through April 1st. 90 minutes, no intermission. Theater for the New City: 155 First Avenue, NY, NY 10009. $15 Tickets: 212-254-1109