Chippendales' Break the Rules Tour: Toronto's first visit by the gods but no reveal
by Drew Rowsome
I hate to begin a review with a disclaimer but here are two:
1) Chippendales' first visit to Toronto was a one-night stand and they have already moved on, so no matter how I hype or diss the show, it has come and gone. However it was an historic occasion so should be commemorated.
2) I was not the target audience for the Break the Rules Tour. Despite creative director Bryan Cheatham's sincere assertions, and the troupe's obvious ambitions, from the moment the voiceover boomed a welcome to the "Ladies" (sounding a little too much like Jerry Lewis' "Hey lady!") to "Ladies, your fantasy begins in 10, 9, 8 . . .", it was obvious that the Break the Rules Tour is aimed squarely at a heterosexual female demographic. And why not? The women in attendance - dressed to thrill and having a great time - are underserved entertainment-wise and after the Ghostbusters reboot troll debacle, it was actually a contact high to see misogyny replaced with gloriously blatant objectification of the male form, and the gleeful exercise of girl power.
We knew we were going to be in the minority amongst the Chippendales' audience but the line-up was intimidating. Hundreds of women lined the sidewalk outside the Danforth Music Hall, not a one of them not wearing a skin-tight outfit and shoes that ranged from the fashionable to the fetishistic to the fan-fucking-fabulous. I counted four men functioning as good-sported husbands or boyfriends, three gay couples, one quartet of very exuberant, presumably gay, men, and the always regal Keith Cole. Inside the theatre was, tragically, only about two-thirds full, but the lung power and estrogenic energy befitted an oversold arena.
The show itself is slapdash and unfocussed theatrically. There were entertaining moments but I kept desperately praying that it would slip over into either full-on camp or semi-coherence. And despite each act - interrupted by a 30-minute intermission which still wasn't long enough to clear the throngs at the bars, being a fast-paced 45 minutes - the show felt padded. A game show skit and numerous songs from America's Got Talent alumni Justin Rhodes (who is unfortunately only charismatic with his clothes off and his mouth shut) severely impeded the momentum of the main event:
A parade of firemen, sports players, runway walkers, construction workers, rappers, cowboys, naval officers, etc, dance on stage, thrust their hips, milk the applause, tear their shirts off, bare their butts and disappear into the darkness cupping their genitals. A lot is made of the possibility of seeing a penis (and there is a huge emphasis on bulges, the male reproductive organ's ability to flop enticingly - painfully? - when encased in only flimsy fabric during energetic hip thrusts, and even a sight gag using a tape measure) but, despite Toronto's liberal nudity laws, not a phallus is seen. Many of the vignettes, and Break the Rules does have a vaudevillian structure, climax with a Chippendales nude, his manhood discreetly covered by a prop.
The inventiveness that goes into preventing an absolute reveal is actually quite entertaining. Evocative of the Vegas magician's "nothing up my sleeve" gambit, is the frequent lowering of towels or g-strings to show that prove that, the Chippendales are not wearing modesty pouches, and tease that there is a real chance that the moneymaker might flop out and stop the show. To the best of my knowledge, and I admit I was watching closely, it only happened once with the man-bunned Chippendale, Jeff, who sported a flaunting and haughty attitude towards nudity and treated us, briefly, to an either "don't give a fuck" or an unplanned side view before the lights blinked to black. Otherwise Break the Rules does not break the no-penis or balls rule.
It should be noted that the lack of explicitness was no deterrent to the audience. Each baring of a chest, and especially of a butt, was rewarded with loud, lusty and deafening screams of sheer excitement and disbelief. Raul, while struggling to appear non-plussed and unafraid of the sheer force of the tsunami of unbridled Dionysian fervour and hysteria surrounding us, noted that it reminded him of chaperoning his much-younger sister to see boy bands. And that, in many ways, is what Break the Rules and Chippendales is: a boy band for adults with all the nonsense of anything beside a releasing of suppressed or unacknowledged desire, stripped away. Stripped away to a point . . .
Yes, the dancing was sloppy and not on the level of a music video (only Jason and Jeff, yes, the two black men, appear to be actual dancers so are unfortunately relegated to warm-up and stunt status). Yes, the athletic feats paled next to Olympics gymnastics, Cirque du Soleil or even Electric Circus let alone Soul Train. Yes, the skits that got us to the shirt-tearing were hokey and incoherent. But damn the men are fine. The sheer hunger in Joey's eyes as he steps forward to thrust out his chest and explode out of his shirt, and the sheer ecstasy in his eyes that follows as the crowd erupts in a collective orgasmic roar, was a brief contact with the divine right of worship owed the truly physically blessed. At several points the Chippendales ventured into the audience (a very brave and potentially risky move) to be admired up close, groped and caressed. Even inches away the men are breathtaking - which makes sense considering that the quality of their abs and musculature has to carry over the footlights and right to the back row - and flawless. These are flesh sculptures, erotic statues somehow animated, not human beings. They are gods and fantasy objects.
And when the group numbers hit their stride, and especially when the soundtrack is rock n roll instead of pop or hip hop, it was euphoric. Perhaps the Vegas residency at the Rio has a consistent slickness to pop consistently, and perhaps as Break the Rules wends it way across the continent and Europe it will acquire the same patina. The addition of Nyle DiMarco as the celebrity host (following top billing by Ian Ziering and Tyson Beckford) will certainly help, the addition of even a hint of chest hair, let alone DiMarco's enticing pelt, will go a good way to sexualizing the Chippendales into adulthood from Ken doll, actually more Billy, status. But that is a matter of personal taste and, as noted, Break the Rules was not really aimed at me. For a one-night stand where the male gaze and male privilege was reversed, Break the Rules was a tease that could not possibly live up to its hype or the impossible glory of the flesh on display. But we left laughing - and flushed with awe and arousal - and fighting the urge to tear off our shirts.