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"The Miracle Brothers," Tyler Maynard & Clifton Oliver, photo Carol Rosegg
“The Miracle Brothers”
Book, music and lyrics by Kirsten Childs.
Directed by Tina Landau.
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street.
Opened Sept. 18, 2005.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Sept. 17, 2005.
Closes Oct. 16, 2005.
“The Miracle Brothers” is a pastiche of Brazilian slavery history and modern sensibility that arouses your interest but never fulfills its promise. Kirsten Childs (book, music and lyrics) and director Tina Landau seem not to have figured out what they wanted to do—create a serious musical-dance-theater piece integrating Brazilian music with a mythical tale of slavery or produce a quirky modern confection loosely based on a cruel era in Brazil’s past.
The device is that a school of dolphins morphs into humans who end up in 17th-century Brazil, some of them slaves, others oppressors, and a few of them characters who regard the system with 21st century sensibilities, establishing interracial liaisons with hardly a thought to the consequences.
If the aim was to present serious myth, one might have expected something on the order of Greek theater. One could have figured out places there for the brutal libertine slave-owner, his unhappy wife, his affable but insecure son, the child of his black mistress, and a sadistic overseer. But what do you do with a sassy, sexy señorita disguised as a man and a jokey pirate chief?
The book and lyrics are trite, not up to the serious conception. But attempts at a serious side are so leaden, that the quips are welcome. When the slave mistress Felicidade (Cheryl Freeman), the mother of Green Eyes (Clifton Olivier), arrives as a spirit and he disagrees with her, she suddenly declares, in modern parlance and inflection, “I will beat you upside your head!”
The best part of the show is the dancing, including the jumps and kicks of the Capoeira in which Green Eyes teaches his white half-brother Fernando (Tyler Maynard) this fusion of dance and martial art.
Olivier, an attractive singer and dancer with star presence, puts enthusiasm and energy into the role of the young slave, which makes one forget that the part lacks substance.
Anika Larsen as Juan, a Spanish woman in male guise, has the best number, a comic, Broadway-style “It’s Really All Right With Me,” which showcases her as an appealing and talented musical comedy performer.
Cheryl Freeman is a standout as the best singer of the company, her jazzy sultry voice in “A Mother’s Lament” giving a fine rendition of the blues.
Nicole Leach is a sexy, sassy Ginga, on the search for Palmares, where slaves live free.
Jay Goede as nasty slave-owner, Lascivio, and William Youmans as evil overseer, Rancor – appropriately named -- are caricatures who don’t get much more to do than figuratively twirl their bad-guy moustaches.
Childs’ music is a lively combination of jazzy Brazilian Samba, rock and show-tunes, though the changes in style follow no particular logic and get in the way of artistic continuity. The performers are fine dancers, so it is disappointing that choreographer Mark Dendy does not present real Bahia dancing.
Even so, the production works best in moments when it concentrates on jazzy song and dance and forgets the hackneyed story. [Komisar]