at the Shubert Theatre
The publicity for Oba Oba heralds the show as “the Brazilian extravaganza,” and that’s no lie. Part 1950s movie musical, part folkloric ballet, part ethnomusicological display, and part nightclub revue, Oba Oba is an unabashed exercise in spectacle. With its bare-breasted dancing girls and bare-chested muscle men, its mountains of glitter and chiffon and spandex and Velcro, and even a collection of towering fruit hats, Oba Oba is totally unafraid to wallow in kitschy excess. But there’s plenty of talent here, too, and an unending supply of the charm of Brazilian music.
Oba Oba purports to be a portrait of the rich diversity of Brazilian culture, with its Portuguese, African, Indian, and North American influences. Accordingly, the show’s baker’s dozen of vignettes range far and wide in their exotic eclecticism. One tableau is a fable about a slave girl who wins the heart of a cruel Portuguese nobleman; another scene reenacts an African Macumba ritual, complete with torches, billowing smoke, a cackling goddess, and a snake dancer (the snake was either rubber or dead). A medley of Latin jazz music from the 1960s and ’70s, with its lilting beat and casually romantic melodies, is followed by a giddy Carmen Miranda tribute (though dancer Vivian Machado Soares, who plays Miranda, is more likely to remind viewers of Grace Jones). The delicacy of the first-act “Samba de Roda,” in which the women flash flirtatious glimpses of skin from underneath ruffled pastel dresses, contrasts with the bold athleticism and relentless rhythm of the second-act “Capoeira of Angola,” an astonishingly well timed display of martial arts acrobatics performed by men and women. The exhilarating buoyancy of the capoeira–a young boy with seemingly limitless reserves of power named Formiguinha is particularly impressive here–is very different from the stylized severity of the oriental martial arts displays we are more familiar with.
Musically, too, variety is the name of the game here. Brassy jazz flourishes and a bass-heavy samba-rock beat are juxtaposed with thrilling bursts of rhythm from an onstage battery of hand-held bells, wood blocks, and drums; the integration of music with movement is dazzling, by far the most exciting aspect of the show. The singers display the wonderfully self-effacing virtuosity that is a hallmark of Brazilian music as they vocally dance around the rapid-fire tongue-twisting tunes (Adriana Guimaraes, a chunky girl in a gold vest, makes a particularly strong impression).
The Brazil of Oba Oba (the title translates as “Oh boy, oh boy!”) is hardly the real thing. This is a tourist’s fantasy come to life, as the staid confines of the Shubert Theatre are transformed into a Rio de Janeiro hotel show lounge. But the talent assembled by producer Franco Fontana for this touring gala is authentic; Oba Oba is both impressive and entertaining in a way few other shows can match.