The New Victory Theater is a microcosm of Times Square’s transformation through the end of the last century. In the 1940s it was home to Minsky’s Burlesque. Throughout the 1970s and 80s it was a porn cinema. Today it is the city’s only theater devoted to performances geared exclusively toward children and family audiences. My, how things have changed!
But its current show "Brazil! Brazil!" is probably not what comes to mind when you think of Children’s Theater: "Hansel and Gretel" this ain’t. It is a love song to -- you guessed it -- all things Brazil. It is a plotless, hour-long, fast-paced celebration of the music, culture, and global influence of the Brazilian people. And it’s actually pretty sexy.
Throughout, there are video projections of a soccer ball (canary yellow and Kelly green, the Brazilian National football team’s colors, naturally) bouncing its way through the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro, past street artists, footballers, children, and adults.
Co-Creators/Co-Directors Toby Gough and Dr. Hana Al Hadad have produced a show that takes us on that same journey, catching glimpses of Brazilian life and customs, from the point-of-view of a wandering, run-away soccer ball.
"Brazil! Brazil!" is part concert, part circus, and part dance theater. A five-piece band remains onstage throughout the performance, providing the soundtrack for all the festivities. With its two electric guitars and drum set, it is more of a rock-n-roll band than a traditionally Brazilian one, though it does feature heavy on Brazilian rhythms and percussion.
One of the first vignettes is a showcase of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that incorporates dance and music. Here we are introduced to the show’s five strapping dancing men who will go on to dominate the bulk of the performance. This Capoeira is a tightly choreographed pseudo-battle with rapid high-kicks and quick spins that leave the audience dizzier than the shirtless heartthrobs onstage. It is interesting to note that the Capoeira is performed to up-tempo samba music rather than a traditional capoeira bateria.
While the Capoeiristas catch their breath and change costumes in the wings, a trio of "freestyle footballers" who have seemingly magical powers over their respective balls entertains us. These three have pretty impressive resumes when it comes to freestyle footballing. One of them (John Farnworth) participated in the 26-mile London Marathon all the while keeping a ball in the air. (Incidentally, during the marathon he was representing and raising funds for HIV charity Kick4Life.)
The children in the audience are particularly impressed by these gravity-defying soccer stunts. Judging by the "ooh’s" and "aah’s" coming from the crowd, I imagine they were all practicing with their own soccer balls the next morning.
The extravaganza is peppered with appearances by two beautiful women (for which Brazil also happens to be well known). Paloma Gomes sings a few traditional sambas, occasionally duetting with Mickey Beigi, who, in addition to being a dancer, is essentially the evening’s emcee.
But it is Gianne Abbott, lead dancer, who tries with lightning-fast gyrating and soulful dance moves to truly steal the show. Occasionally, she succeeds. Even after she leaves the stage at the show’s conclusion, one gets the impression that she continues dancing right into the elevator of her hotel.
"Brazil! Brazil!" arrives in New York after touring Europe, UK, and Australia as a show that could be Brazil’s theatrical ambassador to the world. Even if the families in the audience don’t understand every reference to lambada or samba or Carnival, the cast’s love and devotion to their own culture is obvious and infectious.
"Brazil! Brazil!" runs through February 26 at the New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St. For information on tickets or attending a Capoeira workshop, visit newvictory.org.