Monday, February 18, 2019

The Surreal Adventures of The Angry Redheaded Lawyer: “Betty and the Belrays” by William Electric Black and Performed at Theater for the New City

* After an absence due to getting professional creative representation, yours truly is back on the review circuit. The details are a story for another day but let's just say after winning a prize, you can easily discover that the reality of having it is not the same as your expectations or your fantasy of having it.

Nonetheless, The Angry Redheaded Lawyer is back and decided this show was a must see along with a great foray back into the world of critical review. It turns out I was exactly right.

“Betty and the Belrays” is a story of early 1960's Detroit with a young, determined, idealistic woman whose dreams are bigger than her social station and her “place” as a recent high school graduate with pale skin and blond hair. Betty (Paulina Breeze) is precious, down to her stuffed bunny and her love of the local black radio station. She wins a call in contest to see her favorite girl group, The LoveJones and is not the least bit dissuaded from going to claim her tickets at the station (located in “the black part of town”).

Yellow dresses The Lovejoys (L-R) Kennedy Jazz, Alexis Myles, Christen Dekie. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

However, Betty's parents (John Michael Hersey & Gretchen Poole) tell her that since she's graduated high school and college is not an option due to her modest means, she needs to “Get a Job.” This song sounds blissful and happy like the other offerings in the show but the lyrics are very, very sad. Think “Roses” by Outkast or “Till Death Do Us Part” by Madonna for examples of songs that sound pretty but convey far more underneath the surface. Can you say “dream killing”?

Reluctantly, our heroine heads down to the telephone company to see if she can get a job as a telephone operator to make her parents happy. On her way there, she runs into Joy Jones (Alexis Myles), the lead singer of The LoveJones. Betty is confused as to why Joy, her musical idol, is seeking a job at the phone company when she should be on television and living the celebrity life. Joy tells her that because of her race, she's not even going to be considered as a telephone operator while Betty does have that option.

While waiting to be interviewed at the phone company, Betty meets Connie Anderson (Kalia Lay), a lovelorn woman suffering from a broken heart & Zipgun (Alexandra Welch), a tough girl with some rough edges and an unintentional sense of humor who's fed up with Connie's bawling. Instead of working as telephone operators, these women go along with Betty's plan to become a girl group despite not fitting the profile of the typical girl group. While going to get her concert tickets, Betty learns from Sam the Beat (Levern Williams) that the woman to see for making her girl group ambitions a reality is Loretta Jones (Aigner Mizzelle) a former Raylette who happens to be the mother of Joy Jones.

L-R Alex Welch, Kalia Lay, Paulina Breeze. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Ironing boards in tow, Betty and her group head to the home of Loretta Jones. Loretta is not having it, initially skeptical of these 3 white women then putting them to work ironing. Consider her the Mr. Myagi of this story: Betty, Connie and Zipgun are told they must go to church, do ironing every day for 2 weeks and can't smoke, swear, have weapons or drink alcohol if they're going to get an audition with her. Zipgun in particular is not happy about going to church or being banned from her cigarettes or her switchblade though she already adopts the name Zippy, which Betty introduces her as to the parents (Zipgun likes the sound of it, claiming “it sounds French”).

Miss Loretta Jones meets Betty & The Belrays, who have come for guidance. L-R Kalia Lay, Paulina Breeze, Aigner Mizzelle, Alex Welch. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

When the time comes, the ladies audition and both the members of The LoveJones and Loretta Jones see their talent. Knowing their families won't approve, however, the ladies keep their work as a girl group secret but do have the ironing jobs to keep accusations of idleness at bay. When they win a spot on television, they try to take The LoveJones along but Joy is not happy with this since her group was around first and Betty's group would be the headliner while they would be playing second fiddle. She says they should be invited to be on the show themselves, not tag along with Betty's group. Joy is quite aware of the problems her group faces because of their ethnicity that Betty and her group are not having to deal with. She calls Betty out on the Belrays song “My Boyfriend is a Negro”, saying Betty is merely profiting off social protest and doesn't actually have any skin in the game if her boyfriend is not actually a black man.

Betty & The Belrays on national TV. L-R Alex Welch, Kalia Lay, John Hersey, Paulina Breeze. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Clearly, Betty takes this sentiment to heart and feels it's time to try and fix things after her childhood neighborhood becomes unsafe and her parents are targeted because of her group's material once she has become famous, even turning down a record deal where she'd have to stop singing about social issues.

Betty returns home from tour and sees herself on cover of Life Magazine. Paulina Breeze and John Hersey. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

She and the other Belrays decide to join The LoveJones in a trip to the South to fight for civil rights for black people. This trip does not end happily for Betty though the end is not nearly as much a downer as you would expect.

Aigner Michelle, Levern Williams. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

The set dress, costuming, songs and actors were awesome. Zipgun was hilarious. This was also one of those shows where performers came into the audience so you felt like you were part of the action; the house was packed beforehand. I actually expected the story to be a bit different, that Betty and the Belrays had to get black women to pretend to be them since a white singing group wouldn't be accepted in Detroit or within the girl group community. Everyone around Betty tells her “how can you be in a girl group when you're white?”

However, you do see the love and mutual respect the group and Loretta Jones have for one another. Even Betty's mother comes around to helping her and the Belrays make their girl group aspirations come true by teaching them dance moves. Betty's perseverance and idealism overcome the doubters, even Joy Jones. The show balances social commentary with great musical numbers and the humor of Zipgun/Zippy (who maintains her personality throughout).

Overall, a wonderful show and my +1 very much approved. He actually kept asking me when I was going to write this review & said "it was great."

L-R Alex Welch, Kalia Lay, Aigner Mizzelle, Paulina Breeze. Photo by Jonathan Slaff

Betty (Paulina Breeze) leads a civil rights demonstration. Photo by Jonathan Slaff