OBA OBA '92
at the Shubert Theatre
Oba Oba '92 features, among other things, a lambada that makes the version danced at Casanova's look like a Texas two-step--the top couple moving in ways generally thought possible only in figure skating or gymnastics. But any suggestiveness in the dance--described in the program as "voluptuous, sensual, and downright carnal"--is dispelled by the gleeful innocence with which the dancers execute their exuberant duets. The big sunny smiles help too--no frozen Balanchine faces in this show. After a time even the abundance of bare breasts and buttocks comes to appear so natural that one begins to wonder why on earth anyone would opt to dance garbed in anything more than the diaperlike loincloths (which I'm told constitute standard beachwear in Rio de Janeiro) that conceal the waistbands on the performers' deceptively flimsy tights.
It's not all just tits and glitz, no matter what the advertisers choose to highlight (though by opening night the cast was already familiar with the Windy City "woof"). Part musical revue, part patriotic pageant, and part Barnum & Bailey, Oba Oba is a whirlwind tour of Brazil: historical tableaux representing the liberation of the African slaves in 1888; salutes to the many cultures that make up Brazil; homages to such internationally renowned artists as Carmen Miranda and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim (whose haunting "Manha de Carnaval," used in the 1959 film Black Orpheus, sparked the bossa nova craze of the early and mid-60s); demonstrations of capoeira, an indigenous dance form based on hand-to-hand combat; exhibitions of musicianship on native instruments, including the harplike berimbau, the cuica drum, and the cavaquinho, which resembles a ukulele but, in the hands of Toco Preto, has all the range and versatility of a mandolin. In the second part of the show another musician plays a mandolin with his hands behind his back, but it is Preto's spirited rendition of Zequinha de Abreu's "Tico Tico no fuba" that sets the pace for the show.
Like the Folies-Bergere, Oba Oba delivers a lot--almost too much--for the money. Though the various production numbers are arranged to allow the audience a breather from time to time, the episodic structure and sensory overload still tend to grow a trifle fatiguing. The "Rhythm Beaters" piece runs just a bit too long, the "Macumba" number verges on colonialistic camp (unlike, surprisingly, the homage to Carmen Miranda, known by her countrymen to have been a far more serious and professional artist than her Hollywood legacy would indicate), and including fire-eaters and jugglers in the lineup may bring back flashes of the Ed Sullivan Show. But these minor drolleries are more than compensated for by the understated elegance of Eliana Estevao's silky a cappella rendering of the exquisite "Aquarela do Brazil," the enunciating agility of Angela Mara and Carlos Leca during a song that becomes a speed-singing contest, and the dazzling virtuosity of the capoeira dancers: headstands are fairly common among acrobats, but how about headhops and headslides? Or 20 neck rolls in ten seconds without a trace of whiplash?
Virtually every culture boasts a holiday when the order of business is to party hearty, whether it's Mardi Gras, Purim, or New Year's Eve. At a time when artists are expected to also be social workers, there are those who will find Oba Oba '92 politically indecorous. (One feminist-minded audience member said the women dancers should have been more covered up than the men.) Those with earthier tastes--particularly those whose notions of Brazil are limited to old memories of Astrud Gilberto or even older ones of the Disney movie Saludos Amigos--will recognize Oba Oba '92 for the hokey old-fashioned fun it is.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Fessler.