by Julia Polinsky
Electric Black’s Betty and the Belrays takes place in Detroit, in 1963.
The Motown sound is hot and getting hotter – on black radio stations. Betty
Belarosky, (Paulina Breeze), a perky blonde teen with a serious love for the
music of black girl groups she hears on the radio, lives with her parents, Joe
and Mary (John Michael Hersey and Gretchen Poole). Betty gets a reality check
as her parents send her out to get a job as a telephone operator. While waiting
for an interview, she meets the needy Connie (Kalia Lay) and street-tough
Zipgun (Alexandra Welch), two girls who also need a job.
Betty & The Belrays, L-R: Alex Welch, Paulina Breeze, Kalia
three girls form a girl group, like Betty’s idol, the black trio, LoveJones, led
by Joy Jones (the terrific Alexis Myles). LoveJones’s music may be successful
in the Black community, but they still don’t make real money with it. When
Betty meets Joy, who is also looking for work, for the first time Betty
understands that black people are not treated like white ones; they can’t get
jobs as telephone operators, or sing on national TV shows.
moment of knowledge sets up the rest of Betty and the Belrays, which
follows Betty as she puts together a trio, apprentices with Joy’s mother,
Loretta (the amazing Aigner Mizzelle), an old-timer who knows all about this
music, who teaches these white girls about dedication, persistence, soul, and
singing. And civil rights.
L-R: Gretchen Poole, Kalia Lay, Kennedy Jazz, Aigner Michelle, Alexis
Miles, Christen Dekie.
lily-white teenage girls know nothing about race issues in America, until they learn from Loretta. Betty, in particular, embraces black culture, and
writes such songs as “Why Oh Why (The Segregation)” and “My Boyfriend is a
Negro.” They’re odd songs, to say the least, but they illustrate Betty’s
dedication to black culture.
Betty (Paulina Breeze) leads a civil rights demonstration. Photos
by Jonathan Slaff.
and the Belrays become successful, and with that success comes difficult
choices: sell out to a white record label and stop singing about race issues,
or stay dedicated to black culture? Leave Detroit to protect her parents from
death threats, or stay, and face hatred?
decision, and its consequences, make Betty and the Belrays something
other than a series of scenes that showcase a wonderful cast, ensemble, and
musicians, and a cute group of songs with 60s style choreography (by Jeremy
Lardieri and Kerry Bremer), strung together lightly by a barely credible plot.
The show is really a lesson in the history of race relations in the past fifty
or so years. It’s a pity that’s still necessary.
among the cast: Levern Williams, primarily as DJ Sam the Beat; and Kennedy
Jazz, a singer/dancer so marvelous you could watch her all night, who plays
Gladys, a singer in LoveJones. The ensemble is wonderful; the ensemble pieces
onstage band, led by musical director Gary Schreiner, lends liveliness to the
songs. Susan Hemley’s costumes evoke time, place, and character with affection.
Lytza R. Colon and Mark Marcante’s set is terrific; lighting design (Alexander
Bartenieff) was a little off, or maybe the cast missed cues, but sound by Alex
Santullo was excellent.
bubbly, humorous 60s girl-group story, and a dark tale of segregation and civil
rights makes for an odd combination, but author/director William Electric Black
pretty much pulls it off. To say that he has considerable experience in family entertainment
would be putting it mildly. He has won seven Emmy awards as a writer, and it
shows. Betty and the Belrays has the pacing of episode TV, or a
children’s “chapter book;” things happen in quick cuts, not long swaths of
style of quick scenes suits Betty and the Belrays, keeping the show from
feeling too much like a history lesson, even though that’s what it really is.
Yes, it makes a point, and yes, it has a message, and yes, it’s fun. But you
learn something along the way, as Betty herself learns.
Betty and the Belrays
January 31 - February
Theater for the New
City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thursdays - Saturdays
at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM
admission, $12 seniors/students, $10 groups
Recommended for ages
10 and up.
TNC Box office:
212-254-1109 and 212-475-0108