Say the name Carmen Miranda and your mind instantly conjures images of a flashy showgirl, red painted lips, feathers and sequins, and, most of all, bananas. For many, little else exists about the Chiquita Banana girl beyond these images. Pointless Theatre’s contribution to the Women’s Voice Theatre Festival, Gimme and Band, Gimme a Banana! The Carmen Miranda Story, written by Mel Bieler and Patti Kalil, aims to tell the story of this middle class Portuguese-Brazilian turned Hollywood bombshell, behind the glitz, glamour, and glorious hats.
Somewhat ironically, the company has chosen to explore the woman behind the images with practically no words — barring the lyrics of Miranda’s many songs, the majority of which are performed in Portuguese, almost no words are spoken onstage — focusing instead on telling her story through music, dance, pantomime, and the appearance of some delightful puppets (also designed by the co-playwrights).
The show opens at the Brazilian pop-culture star’s funeral, a move strikingly similar to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita. Though Eva Peron, the subject of that musical, primarily made her name through politics rather than show business, there are still many parallels between the two women’s stories, and the immense public outpouring of grief at their early deaths (Miranda died suddenly at only 55 years old) only reinforces the impact of their starpower on the masses.
We then flashback to the 1930s to meet Miranda (played by the stunning Sharalys Silva) working as a milliner in Rio de Janiero, and making a splash as a samba club singer. In a whirlwind of opportunity, she is spotted by Hollywood insider Lee Shubert (Scott Whalen), and whisked away to New York. Her star begins to rise not only in the States, but all over the world. She makes fourteen films in thirteen years.
All is not well, however. Though she dazzles American audiences with her “South American Way” Miranda is singing another tune behind the scenes. During the moving number “Disseram Que Voltei Americanizada” (They said that I came back Americanized), a news-radio voiceover tells us that many in her home country consider her to be a sell-out who has lost her roots.
Most of the show’s eleven songs are accompanied by a fabulous onstage samba band, led charmingly by Phillip Da Costa playing Miranda’s real-life band leader and one-time lover Aloysio de Oliverio. De Oliverio, disappointed in her career choices, eventually leaves Miranda to return to Brazil.
But Miranda will not be stopped, and we get the treat of seeing Silva’s interpretation of many of her most famous songs, including the iconic “Lady in the Tutti Fruti Hat.” Co-Directors Roberta Alves and Matt Reckeweg have choreographed each number to be its own complex extravaganza. Between some amusing props (like four human-sized bananas), Max Doolittle’s impeccable lights, and Frank Labovitz’s opulent costumes, they attempt to transform the small stage and modest ensemble of six into a full-out spectacle.
At my performance certain songs, like “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much)” did not live up in vocal and physical energy to the spectacle created by the visual elements. Others, like “Something For the Boys” were muddied by stage pictures which tried to tell too many stories at once.
After marrying David Sebastian (Brendan O’Connell), the brother of an investor in her films, Miranda’s life began spiral out of control. Her new husband is abusive. She has a miscarriage. She begins taking drugs. She seeks electroshock therapy for depression. The juxtaposition between her sunny and charming disposition in front of the camera and her increasingly difficult life behind it is beautifully portrayed during “The Enchilada Man” which proves to be one of the show’s strongest sequences for its moving clarity.
While the form of the show is intriguing, it is also limiting. There is hardly a word of English spoken, outside of a few voice-over narrations. Though the story is largely clear in spite of this, there are also many unexplored moments, particularly between Miranda and her sister Aurora (Belen Oyola-Rebaza). These two women have a connection so touching, I constantly felt as though they were screaming out for dialogue! Not to mention the much-discussed issue of Miranda’s tokenisation as the “Brazilian Bombshell,” a juicy and topical issue that the real-life Miranda fought against for much of her career, seemed hardly touched.
Gimme a Band, Gimme a Banana! has much going for it though. Silva’s dynamic performance as Miranda is simply outstanding, and it is impressive how much information is conveyed visually. The passion and talent of all involved is plain to see and will delight audiences curious about the woman underneath the Tutti Fruti Hat.
Running Time: 70 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Gimme a Band, Gimme a Banana! The Carmen Miranda Story plays through Saturday, November 14, 2015 at Capital Fringe’s Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.