‘Pedaço de Mim’ (‘A Little Slice of Me’) – Chico Buarque’s ‘Ópera do Malandro’ in Review (Conclusion)

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Thoughts on “The Street Hustler’s Opera”

Set for Opera do Malandro (mandrake.pt)
Set for Chico Buarque’s Opera do Malandro (mandrake.pt)

On the eve of Moeller & Botelho’s first show of the New Year, All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in 90 Minutes (set to premiere on January 9, 2014), it’s worth noting that the team’s first high-profile production of the singer-songwriter’s show Ópera do Malandro took place over a decade ago in Rio de Janeiro — on August 14, 2003, to be precise, at the Carlos Gomes Theater.

Having been privileged to see Claudio Botelho and Charles Möeller’s revival of Chico’s Malandro in a courtesy DVD of their show — while also having written extensively about the origin and background of the path-breaking work itself — I felt sufficiently equipped to view the 2003 production with a discerning eye.

Keeping in mind that Ópera do Malandro had been filmed in a format that was still in its relative infancy in Brazil — and which was preserved more for its historical and theatrical significance than for its video or sonic quality — the appearance at the outset of the two-tiered set of arches (the visual representation of Rio’s famous Lapa Arches) on the upper stage platform was a bit of a letdown. However, once I became accustomed to the idea that this was a show with a limited budget, I settled down for an entertaining night of viewing. In that, I was not disappointed.

Those arches were accompanied by individual semi-circular units on the lower stage platform. Although at first glance they seemed to evoke little of the local ambiance called for in the text, they were in fact quite workmanlike and useful for quick scene changes.

The story takes place in 1940s Rio, with Damon Runyon-type characters and situations that would not be out of place in an Abbott & Costello comedy of the same period (think Buck Privates, Who Done It, or Hold That Ghost). Outside of the arches (the real ones exist today as tourist attractions, but were used back in the day as an aqueduct for transporting fresh water to the city), the costumes were flavorful and more than acceptable.

The sound quality of the recording was far from ideal, but this may have had something to do with the equipment that was used. Again, from my extensive research into Malandro, the directors have gone on record as saying they did not have much money to spend at the start of production, which might have contributed to the overall Spartan look and variable sound quality (as indicated above).

For the most part, the acting was quite solid and typical of Brazilian comic theater as a whole, despite this being a 2003 revival. There was a liberal use of four-letter words, which is fairly characteristic of theater productions from that period. I recall seeing a 1985 São Paulo presentation of the play O Analista de Bagé (“The Analyst from Bagé”), based on the character created by writer Luis Fernando Verissimo. My father and mother both howled with delight at this extremely bawdy yet totally hilarious show, so I was not at all surprised by Malandro’s coarse language.

I’m told that Claudio trimmed about an hour or so of dialogue from the original text. The need to substantially cut down on the talk in order to make room for more of the music turned out to be a godsend in better integrating the spoken lines to the dramatic context. (For a complete plot summary, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/opera-do-malandro-the-street-hustlers-opera-whats-it-all-about-max-overseas/).

Maestrini, Schumacher, Ravenle, Mendonca, Lins (ww2.uol.com.br)
Maestrini, Schumacher, Ravenle, Mendonca, Lins (ww2.uol.com.br)

There are several key roles, particularly that of Duran (played by veteran actor Mauro Mendonça) and his wife, Vitória (singer Lucinha Lins); and that of Max Overseas (Alexandre Schumacher), portrayed onstage as a Latinate Clark Gable, which makes perfect sense. His two love interests, Teresinha (Soraya Ravenle, who will appear alongside Claudio Botelho in All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in 90 Minutes) and Lucia (a very young and very talented Alessandra Maestrini, four years before 7 – The Musical), are strong female types. Although Lucia is a relatively minor part, she has two standout musical numbers, “O meu amor” (“My True Love”) and “Palavra de mulher” (“The Word of a Woman”).

And then there’s Geni (wonderfully played by baritone Sandro Christopher), who happens to be gay. He has an extraordinarily over-the-top show-stopper in Act II (“Geni and the Zeppelin”). Imagine what a Nathan Lane could do with this piece! Flamboyance is no hindrance to success, I pondered, and neither is farce. Let’s remember what Lane did for The Addams Family, a musical that was panned by just about every critic on the planet, but in the end turned out to be a real moneymaker. Police Inspector Chaves (Claudio Tovar), called Tigrão (or “Big Tiger”), is another key figure throughout, along with Duran’s hookers (very individualized, by the way) and Max’s malandros (not so well individualized, but good singers and dancers all).

At the time of my viewing, I felt more dance numbers were needed — much more dancing in fact, such as in the opening number and in the memorable “Las Muchachas de Copacabana” ensemble that closes Act I, a song that was not part of the original show, but was inserted into the unsuccessful movie version from 1986.

"The Hovel Tango" with Soraya Ravenle
“The Hovel Tango” with Soraya Ravenle

All in all, Malandro was a great show that required a bit of tightening here and there. If ever this musical were to make its way to Broadway, an experienced English adapter would need to update and revise the material extensively, some of which is comprised of stale jokes about the hookers’ sagging bottoms and the typical gay-bashing by various characters (so politically incorrect nowadays, but perfectly acceptable in its period).

To summarize, Ópera do Malandro is definitely in the tradition of Brazilian musical theater, with serious overtones that it shares with several of its American cousins. You could call it a Brazilian-style Guys and Dolls, mixed with elements of Married to the Mob and Kander & Ebb’s Chicago (with hints and shades of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas tossed in).

The play is a little rough around the edges, but that’s what gives it its charm, even innocence. Max Overseas is a lovable, Clark Gable-like rogue (vide Manhattan Melodrama), and he’s played that way throughout — except in the Act II scene when he’s locked in Big Tiger’s jail. We then get a glimpse of Max’s human side, his fears, his worries, and his dashed hopes for the future.

It’s our hope too, that one day the Great White Way — and the rest of the theater community — will get more than a bird’s eye view of this revolutionary Brazilian work in a modern-day staging worthy of its creator.

Well, a little slice of him, anyway, which is the least that can be expected.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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