Tyler Maynard, left, and Clifton Oliver, right, are the Miracle Brothers in Kirsten Childs world-premiere musical at the Vineyard Theatre
Its a miracle: A new musical withgasp!original music
By Scott Harrah
The current New York theater scene has a serious shortage of original musicals. It seems that many of the new shows that have opened on Broadway in the past year have been of the jukebox variety, based on classic oldies, so its quite refreshing to see an Off-Broadway musical like Kirsten Childss Miracle Brothers with a score of brand-new material. The production, set in 17th century Brazil during the colonial days of Portuguese sugar-cane plantations and African slaves, features an orchestra with traditional Brazilian samba instruments.
Childs, who received much acclaim for her last production, the hit musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, has written a sweeping musical saga about race, family, adventure, and freedom that is incredibly entertaining despite its many flaws. The story centers on two young brothers in Bahia, Brazil: Fernando (Tyler Maynard, last seen Off-Broadway in Altar Boyz), and, Green Eyes (Clifton Oliver). Both boys have the same white Portuguese father and live in a parallel universe because Fernando is white, aristocratic and free but sickly, while Green Eyes is a black slave who is healthy, strong, and skilled in the Brazilian martial art of capoiera.
The story is partially told as a metaphorical fairy tale, using botos (Brazilian river dolphins) to make a statement about humanity and race in the dark days of slavery. Brazilian legend has it that the pink freshwater dolphins can rise from the river and turn into humans, and Childs uses this bit of South American folklore to tell her story. The dolphins pass through an imaginary portal to mortals to become human, but its not always clear whether what were seeing is reality or fantasy. The story has many colorful characters, including renegade pirates, runaway slaves, and of course, the chorus of singing dolphins (all portrayed realistically as humans, without silly animal costumes).
There is also a first-rate cast, many of whom have fine voices and have been seen on Broadway in recent years. Plantation matriarch and Fernandos mother, Isabel (Kerry Butler, from Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors) and Green Eyess mother, the slave mistress Felicidade (Cheryl Freeman, star of Frank Wildhorns recent Broadway musical The Civil War) both have outstanding, soaring voices and give resonant life to such songs as My True, True Love and A Mothers Lament. Freeman is especially noteworthy, giving the type of virtuoso vocal performance rarely seen Off-Broadway. Many of the songs fuse Brazilian samba with contemporary pop, resulting in some fun, infectious musical numbers.
The only problem is that, at more than two hours with one intermission, Miracle Brothers is far too long. Its storyline is simply not epic enough to merit two full acts, and the second one has some unnecessary musical numbers and a love interest (played nonetheless with aplomb by Nicole Leach) for Fernando that seems like thematic padding. For these two reasons alone, the director could have easily cut out a good 15 minutes from act two. In addition, some of the dialogue contains hip 21st century slang and expressions in attempt to be cute and ironic, but they seem out of context and out of character in a historical story set in the 17th century.
Regardless, there are enough plot twists to give the story momentum, and many will enjoy the effervescent, toe-tapping score, Mark Dendys complicated, sexy choreography, and G.W. Merciers clever scenic design (complete with a bamboo stage curtain and numerous props that transform the Vineyards stage into a Brazilian jungle). In a season that has very few musicals with original songs, Miracle Brothers truly stands out with its ambitious creativity.