Tyler Maynard and Clifton Oliver in Miracle Brothers
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Tyler Maynard and Clifton Oliver in Miracle Brothers
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There are so many astonishingly good elements about the Vineyard Theatre's stunning production of Kirsten Childs' Miracle Brothers, it almost doesn't matter that the musical's storyline doesn't entirely cohere. Childs has been preparing this one for four years and has had one workshop glimpse at it before whipping it into shape for public presentation. What's on offer isn't finished, but if it is still to be considered a work in progress, it's already a knock-out.

To begin with, Childs' score is sumptuous. Accompanying a narrative set in a Brazilian rain forest -- thankfully, no rock stars show up looking to save the threatened environment -- Miracle Brothers takes its feel and flavor from the lush setting. It's rich, dark, and deep, with sudden flashes of startling light. Childs, who also wrote the book and lyrics, so beguilingly uses Brazilian rhythms and instrumentation for her ever-efflorescing tunes that those inclined to samba in their seats will find themselves doing so time and again. (Daryl Waters' orchestrations incorporate a cuica, or friction drum.)

The highlights of the score include "Mundo Paraiso" (bravo for the many clever "ee-so" rhymes) and "I Gotta Get Ta Palmares." (See whether or not you can easily remain still through these ditties.) When Childs wants, she can write a traditional Broadway musical comedy number ("It's Really All Right With Me") or a piercing ballad (the "Mother's Lament" duet) with the best of them. The show's sensational and sensitive musical director is Fred Carl, who gives Kimberly Grigsby -- the swaying Two Gentlemen of Verona band helmer -- a run for her groove-to-the-beat money. Two scores like Miracle Brothers and Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza in a single six-month period indicate that the stars have aligned for our listening pleasure.

Also a big entry in the Miracle Brothers plus column is the sheer look of the production. Director Tina Landau, who seems to have a yen for site-specific pieces, may very well have had to fight a powerful impulse to place this orchid of a show in an actual Bahian rain forest. Recognizing that the commute would have been prohibitive, she's asked set designer G.W. Mercier, projection designer Jan Hartley, lighting designer Scott Zielinski, and sound designer Brett Jarvis to do the next-best thing: give her an abstract surrounding that palpably approximates the real locale. They've succeeded. For the cast's peregrinations across the playing arena, which stretches beyond the floor-level stage so that it hugs the audience, costume designer Anita Yavich has dressed these often bare-footed folk largely in white -- the ebullient on-stage musicians included. Experiencing this show is like stepping under a refreshing waterfall.

Cheers also for Landau's direction of Childs' luxuriant vision and the manner in which it flows into Mark Dendy's choreography so seamlessly that it's all but impossible to tell where one artist's work ends and the other's begins. Much of the movement is based on the Afro-Brazilian martial art-cum-dance discipline called capoeira. Much of what isn't capoeira-like is based on Dendy's vision of dolphins migrating, since Childs' story involves Brazilian river dolphins at play. That is, all of the performers -- who seem to have been carefully picked for their singing, dancing and acting abilities in that order -- are called on to impersonate dolphins as well as humans.

Chief among them are Clifton Oliver and Tyler Maynard, who appear as (respectively) a black brother and a white brother seeking freedom and peace of mind. These two stalwarts sing out and execute the demanding choreography with unflagging urgency. Alongside them, Cheryl Freeman and Kerry Butler as two troubled mothers shake the rafters with their voices, although their acting during the show's more serious segments leaves something to be desired. As other dolphins shape-shifted into good and bad humans, Nicole Leach, Jay Goede (often playing a nasty husband and father named, ahem, Lascivio), Anika Larsen, Devin Richards, and William Youmans have sinuous fun. Karen Olivo, Darrell Moultrie, and Gregory Treco gleefully remain as un-shape-shifted dolphins.

Calling to mind a Shakespearean fantasy -- think The Tempest crossed with Pericles and a smidgen of As You Like It -- Miracle Brothers has the title siblings losing and then finding themselves as they flee into a forest with literal and psychological implications and complications, at least one woman cross-dressing to outwit pursuers, a malevolent father and, ultimately, four sets of reconciled lovers united in the white garb of innocence recaptured.

Childs has set her story in 17th-century Brazil, where escaped slaves could find refuge in scattered republics, one of which was known as Palmares. But there's no doubt that what she wants to get across is the need in our present republic for love and understanding between the races. To some extent, her view is an elaboration on her previous, autobiographical tuner, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. With a sort of child-like (Childs-like?) naivete, the composer-lyricist-librettist wants what one of her lyrics describes as "a world full of love." At the moment, her demand is contained in a musical with an unfortunate surfeit of story-telling devices, most significant among them the dolphin conceit. Ah, but the music!