Voices of the Amazon
London, Sadler’s Wells
4 July 2017
It seemed, throughout this show, that I was watching the stage adaptation of a Disney film, not yet made. Here was Frozen meets Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid, by way of The Lion King; this latter allusion reinforced by the unmistakable voice of Mufasa’s evil brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons, of course), also narrating Voices of the Amazon. In regular bursts of recorded, voiceover text, Irons told a saccharine-laden tale of sororal love between two mermaids that leads to the land-based quest of one sister (Beleza) to find a cure for her ailing sibling (Flavia) and experience romantic adventure and sundry dangers, along the way.
This tale of sisterly love was appropriately produced by the Sisters Grimm, a duo comprising former Royal Ballet dancer, Pietra Mello-Pittman, and the Grammy-nominated composer, Ella Spira. They enjoyed a runaway success with their first production, Inala, premiered in 2014, featuring dancers performing in front of the legendary Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir. In certain key respects this follow-up production apes both Inala’s narrative context of tribal tribulations in southern hemisphere heat; and its staging, with the dancers again performing in front of live musicians. This juxtaposition of singers and dancers worked superbly in Inala because there was a significant blurring of the boundaries between song and dance; mainly because the men of the Ladysmith choir loved to move (and did so with great rhythmic style). Here, the stationary musicians had little, or no, interaction with the dancers and often seemed an unnecessary visual distraction. A notable exception was the enigmatic singer, Kay Elizabeth, who mingled amongst the dancers unobtrusively, performing an exceptional song-book with luscious vocals and the easy movement of a trained dancer.
The simple narrative is underpinned by reference to the ecological and environmental threats to the Amazon, itself, an emphasis reinforced by the engagement of no less than three advisory environmental consultants, including the WWF and the Eden Project. The important eco-factor might, however, have been better articulated with more effective set designs. The initial projection of ambiguous tree-branch imagery onto curtains, placed some way inside the three sides of the stage, wasn’t at all convincing; and a supposedly devastating forest fire in the second act was particularly underwhelming in its visual impact. If the clue hadn’t been in the title, it would have been hard to guess that this show had anything to do with the greatest of all rainforests, spreading across no less than nine South American countries. If the set is unadventurous, Temple Clark’s costumes are certainly colourful: in one sequence, it seemed like the Tsarevich Ivan had stolen The Firebird’s ruby-red feathers, wearing them himself, while giving the angry bird, a vivid yellow and purple plumage.
The combination of Irons’ mellifluous narration, the static musicians and the curtailed, curtained space placed some severe challenges on Helen Pickett’s choreography. At times, it seemed a cliché-laden mix of gesture and neo-classical ballet and it didn’t evolve into any cohesive style; but, the diverse infusion of accents from circus (in an aerial opening), capoeira and street (including one tremendous whirl of b-boy head spins) provided exciting and eclectic dance, if only, in spurts. Pickett showed a fine touch in choreographing the combat scenes, particularly for the two warring brothers, Yanno and Soli (respectively, Kauê Ribeiro and Hicaro Nicolai) and she has created a suitably passionate love duet for Yanno and Beleza (Rachel Maybank; definitely essaying a Disney heroine in human form). Royal Ballet dancer, Nathalie Harrison, brought an enigmatic air of vulnerability to Flavia; the mermaid sister, laid low by that unspecified illness.
By far the best of this production – more musical theatre, than dance – was the outstanding score and songbook from Spira, aided by a trio of co-writers (Danny Nascimento, Dito Martins and Julien Davis). After an ambiguous start, in which Elizabeth’s vocals were overwhelmed by the musicians in the opening song, Spira’s score developed into a rich tapestry of rhythmic musical numbers and melodic songs, infused with sundry Latin flavours and a flourishing disco beat. Sung in a mix of Brazilian and (often indistinct) English, and punctuated by highly descriptive instrumental numbers, Spira’s music was the only contribution that achieved the same high standards set by Inala. Having composed so successfully for the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers, Spira has now demonstrated the wide range of her command of contemporary music by creating an eclectic mix of Latin songs that bring much-needed authenticity to these Voices of the Amazon.
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