Taking the Plunge

Kirsten Childs's dolphins play dangerous human games. But referee Tina Landau's asleep.

Very few people, I imagine, would go to a new musical if they were told in advance that the characters were all dolphins, so I suppose I've already loused up Kirsten Childs's chance for a run on the box office, but there's no way of dodging the issue: Childs's new musical, Miracle Brothers, posits its story as a shape-shifting game played by dolphins, and those who immediately suspect something fishy about it will probably pass it by, being too ignorant to realize that dolphins are not fish but mammals like ourselves, with a long history in human folklore, poetry, and song. Apollinaire's dolphins, who sport in the briny sea even though life is cruel, are the spiritual ancestors of Childs's, who inhabit the upper reaches of a Brazilian river. When their game turns them into humans in 17th-century Bahia, issues that don't usually divide dolphins come into play: racism, slavery, gender identity, jealousy, misogyny, violence, greed. Complex, tangled, and picaresque, Childs's story has to travel a long way before her dolphins can get back to splashing peacefully again—and even then a few of them stay behind, probably just to remind us that our own lives are a good deal more tangled and complex than we would like them to be, though regrettably less picaresque than those lived by dolphins in their games.

Childs imagines her dolphins trans- forming into a pair of half-brothers, one the son of a womanizing plantation owner by his legal wife, the other sired on the beautiful and haughty slave the planter has allegedly sold but in fact keeps hidden in an outlying cabin. Divided by racist law but bonded since infancy by their flickering awareness of their shared dolphinhood, the sickly white scion and his brawny slave half-brother make a discomfiting duo whose misadventures sug- gest something like a Hope and Crosby Roadmovie rewritten by Gilberto Freyre and Jorge Amado, with a little assist from 18th-century pirate narratives, Gothic romance, and Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, which also features racially discrepant siblings and a false accusation of murder. Flavored by Childs's bouncily percussive, samba-inspired score, the wild mixture of sources and events suggests a theatrical equivalent of feijoada, the zesty Brazilian bean stew in which almost any ingredient may seem at home.

But like any rich dish, feijoada requires careful, considerate cooking, and what Tina Landau's production serves up is an alternately overheated and underdone mess, large dollops of which are not nearly as appetizing as the delicious ingredients Childs has provided. Though the cast is full of appealing performers, characterization tends to be either one-dimensional or nebulously blank, and almost everyone screeches hideously, in an intimate space that's already egregiously overmiked. When actors normally as good as Cheryl Freeman, Jay Goede, and William Youmans register as perfunctory, I can only blame the direction. (The gross miscasting of chirpy, adolescent-looking Kerry Butler as a long-suffering wronged wife produces particularly painful results.) Things get better whenever Mark Dendy's eccentrically inventive choreography takes over, but it doesn't take over nearly often enough, lapsing into puzzling clumps of inactivity, sometimes in mid number. The story gets told, and under the metallic din it's fairly easy to discern the charm of Childs's uniquely shaped, imaginative musical sequences, but the whole thing would be a great deal more fun if some skill at dramatic focus and some musical taste had been exercised on it. As things stand, I hope Childs's work will quickly get translated into Portuguese and staged in Brazil; the cast album from Rio will make much better listening.

Maynard and Oliver: Fighting racism
photo: Carol Rosegg
Maynard and Oliver: Fighting racism

Still, within the overgrown muddle of Landau's proceedings, a few cast members are able to carve out individual areas of success. Tyler Maynard and Clifton Oliver make something of the blood-bonded brothers, while Anika Larsen and Nicole Leach, as the sassy young women they take up with on their wanderings, bring a welcome relief to Act Two. Childs has thoughtfully given them two of her best songs; when Larsen explains that she's disguised as a boy because "cross-dressed and flat-chested/I never get molested," Miracle Brothers is very hard to resist. Rick Sordelet's fight staging, vital to a plot that revolves around capoeira (the Brazilian equivalent of kickboxing), is reliable as always. A footnote on Maynard, late of Altar Boyz, whose appealingly goofy stage persona makes the evening's strongest impression despite being not precisely what the role calls for: What he really represents is our musical theater's latest update of the overbred, frenetically jumpy, sissified rich kid embodied nearly a century ago by figures like Eddie Cantor. Somebody ought to revive Whoopee for him.

Something other than dolphins, probably the lines in Keen Company's playbill, must have been swimming before my overworked eyes last week when I misidentified the actress whose performance in The BreadwinnerI was praising. The compliment properly belonged to Jennifer Van Dyck, to whom my apologies.

 
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