Riverdance was a theatrical phenomenon and Heartbeat of Home, the second show from the same team, will undoubtedly be as well. The show is spectacular, lavish and executed with pinpoint precision. It is thrilling when a troupe of Irish dancers detach from their laser-like spotlights and group to thunder towards the audience. The "wow" moments are many but unfortunately the entire show is uneven - the set revolves in tandem with the massive back projections to place the audience, in an IMAX-worthy vertigo-inducing moment, atop a skyscraper where a tap competition takes place on a girder. Inexplicably this stupendous effect is followed by a flight across a desert, guided by a badly animated and thematically confusing bird, that, while showcasing the formidable band, feels like an out-take from The Lone Ranger's credit sequence.
The playbill is filled with copious notes explicating the themes but reading them only muddied the waters - as did the listless songs that only achieved lift-off once aided by the addition of a pre-recorded gospel choir. The stated aim seems to be to examine the ways that dance and music of differing cultures influence and feed each other, all framed by the immigrant/emigrant experience. The result comes across as a tragic tale of how Latin, Afro-Cuban and flamenco dancers struggle to sexually liberate the Irish and put some movement into their hips and groins. But those Irish are stubborn and, while they tentatively test out these provocative and deliciously sexual modes of expression, they stick resolutely to their ramrod posture and Morse code-like form of communication. Perhaps tradition is all.
Fortunately the dancing is astounding and if one stops thinking or analysing, one is swept along by showstopping talent after showstopping talent. Ciara Sexton does the most to shatter the rigidity of the Irish dance style by adding a come hither lightness that makes her pixie cut a perfect metaphorical choice. When she seemingly floats in the air while her feet flutter, the audience gasps and believes that mortals can fly. In a duet with Steffano Domit, who represents the passionate side of tap: flamenco, his hair, long and dripping with sweat, flares erotically in contrast to the practical - but very flattering - cut adorning Sexton. The duos 'dos say more about cultural differences than their lightning quick steps.
Angelo Gioffre, representing the Latins, appears to have not a bone in his lithe body and, all emanating from his hyperactive pelvis, undulates astoundingly. He is ably matched by Clare Craze who churns up a sexy storm and makes the impossible appear easy, at least according to her constant sultry smile. There is so much heat generated that lead Irish dancer Bobby Hodges, who appears to be being groomed as the next Michael Flatley, can dazzle with his footwork, muscular physique and West-Side-Story-hunky pompadour but his sexual connection with Sexton comes across as very British stiff upper lip. The dicey theme of cultural appropriation and cultural fetishism is glossed over and subverted before being discarded as Heartbeat of Home high kicks towards a feel good climax where all unite to clog into a multicultural future.
Specific mention must be made of dancer Curtis Angus who is Heartbeat of Home's most spectacular special effect. While he moves thrillingly - all leaps and macho balletic grace - he merely has to flash some skin and seats all over the theatre dampen. Angus' torso steals focus ever time it appears and his character seems to take joy in joining, at one point even mocking, the Irish dancers - as if to demonstrate that of course he can do that as well as they can but, he prefers to exude sexuality. That his dancing transcends his sheer beauty is a remarkable feat.
The sassy Afro-Cuban dancers - Teneisha Bonner, Kieran Donovan and Renako McDonald - inject hip hop moves into the mix and the sheer show-off stunts seems to wow the audience more than the precision and spectacle of the clockwork energy of Irish dance: the standing ovation during the curtain call did not begin until the Afro-Cubans, smiling slyly, took their bow. The Irish dancers, who had lured us to this revue, became the genial hosts upstaged by their guests.
In a post-Cirque du Soleil and Britney in Vegas world, it takes a lot to thrill an audience and move them emotionally. Heartbeat of Home does the former frequently, with a little more cohesion it might achieve the latter.
Heartbeat of Homecontinues until Sun, March 2 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St.