Betty & The Belrays
nytheatre.com review by John Jordan
March 10, 2007
Theater for the New City has pulled out all the stops for its latest musical production, entitled Betty and the Belrays. Written and directed by the seemingly unstoppable William Electric Black (aka Ian Ellis James, who has won seven Emmy Awards for his writing on Sesame Street) and featuring a top-notch, fully-energized cast, this off-off Broadway show has more vigor and good vibrations than most commercial musical productions I have seen. This is not a musical remake of an '80s movie, this is original storytelling at its best!
The time is 1963. The United States is embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement; various leaders are trying to stop the second March on Washington; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is busy readying his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Meanwhile, sweet, blond-haired Betty Belarosky has just graduated from high school in Detroit, Michigan. Betty is not just your typical, fun-loving '60s white teenager. She loves to sing and she loves to dance. But most importantly, she is color blind. Not in the literal sense, but in the racial sense. She loves Negro music and loves the Negro radio station. And the only thing that bothers her about that is that it bothers other people. She just cannot understand why. If only everyone had the mindset of Betty Belarosky!
Betty's story opens one afternoon while she is singing and dancing maniacally to one of her favorite songs. I loved this character from the moment she becomes overly excited at hearing her own name on the radio, as the Negro station granted her write-in request. She has also won a ticket of some sort and is asked to get to the station by noon. Enter the Belarosky parents and the "you graduated now and it's time to get a job" speech, much to the chagrin of Betty. This is probably the funniest scene of the entire show, because, well, girls just want to have fun, they don't want to work!
Betty reluctantly heads off to a phone operator interview, where she meets Connie and Zipgun, two other recent high school grads also there halfheartedly looking for a job. The girls ditch the interview, head to the so-called "unpleasant" Negro side of town to get the free tickets, and unintentionally form an all-white girl group. On the advice of Sam the Beat from the radio station, they head off to meet with Miss Loretta Jones for some "shaping up" before their audition for Soltown Records, a label usually reserved for artists of color. Miss Jones takes the trio under her wing, teaching the girls about life, adding some soul to their music, and demonstrating how to iron large amounts of laundry at the same time.
The girls form Betty and the Belrays, sing about ending segregation, and become an instant hit on a popular dance TV show, "Music Today U.S.A." The attention brings forth a white record label looking to sign them, if only they will stop singing about racial issues. In 1963, what's a girl group to do?
Nicole Patullo plays Betty Belarosky with such infectious oomph; I am not sure how the actress did not collapse on stage. Though her performance is energetically outstanding, she could find a few different levels to keep it a bit more grounded. Vanessa Burke adds splendid tough-girl humor to the mix as Zipgun, and fares better when the humor is more natural and not forced. Cara S. Liander delivers a fine, layered, performance as Connie, the Belray who is always "lost-in-love."
Mary Belarosky, a mother with some of her own hidden secrets and talents, is played with strong conviction by Lucille Duncan. Chris Reber does double duty, first as the hysterically stereotypical '60s dad, and also as Rex Rogers, the hunk-o-matic host of the popular teen dance show. His comic timing is impeccable.
Adding the authentic soul factor to the production is the amazing Verna Hampton as both Dee Dupree and the powerhouse mother hen, Loretta Jones. Levern Williams also presents a very respectable performance as Sam the Beat.
There are 13 original songs, composed by Valerie Ghent and William Electric Black. Each song tells a story that needs no explanation, puts a smile on your face, and makes you want to clap and sing along, which is completely encouraged.
The band, comprised of Damon Banks on bass and Tony Lewis on drums, is Motown-a-licious. The lighting design by Federico Restrepo is quite good and the graphic theater space design by Christina Fikaris is very cool.
The choreographer, Jeremy Lardieri, received a gasp from the audience (there was a brief post-show Q&A with the artists) when he announced that this was his first professional production. By the high quality of his choreography, I suspect that Lardieri, who is a senior in college, will be around for a very long time.
Black packs a lot of serious subject matter into a 90-minute musical, yet he does it in a way that doesn't seem like a lesson. Though I have to say, I learned more from this play about real U.S. history, about the Civil Rights Movement, about girl groups, and about racial issues than I think I did all through high school. Why? Because everyone involved in this production, from the writers to the actors to the musicians to the choreographer, has put his or her heart and soul into it. It's not only fun and entertaining, but informative and necessary.