What a difference 20 years makes. Heartbeat of Home, the new show from the team that brought you Riverdance two decades ago is an immensely enjoyable, professional-looking, polished dance show where everything hangs together as smooth as silk. The music score is sensational and the band it hot. It certainly deserves a long shelf life.
Now for full disclosure. I never warmed up to Riverdance with its pretentious, obscure narration, the staccato dance numbers that seemed gerrymandered together, particularly the odd inclusion of Russian folk dance, flamenco, urban tap and street dance. Every non-Irish dance section in that show seemed to be mere way stations awaiting the wall of thunder. As for those Iris dancers, especially the men, they looked like your high school class, acne included.
Cut to 2014. Heartbeat of Home is a child of Riverdance because it too showcases different dance forms – flamenco, Latin, Afro-Cuban and urban – along with Irish step dance. But there the similarity ends. Joseph O’Connor’s narrative line has cohesion – young people forced to leave their homeland for better beginnings in the first act, and a celebration of multiculturalism in the second. The various dance sequences belong to the whole cloth producing an even and logical flow.
John Carey is responsible for the always exciting Irish dance numbers, while choreographer David Bolger created the attractive contemporary-ballet-jazz sections, and the musical staging. Many of the accomplished dancers step out of their specialities from time to time to show their versatility. The second act, in particular, is impressive as most of the eye-catching numbers are fusion. Bolger and Carey have been immensely clever in merging the dance forms into an extravaganza of styles all happening at the same time. For example, Irish dancers actually do partnering.
In fact, the level of dance overall is very high. Lead Irish dancers Ciara Sexton and Ryan McCaffrey are charismatic, as are Afro-Cuban dancer Teneisha Bonner and Latin dancer Curtis Angus. Flamenco dancers Rocio Montoya and Stefan Domit do rivet the eye. Vocalist Lucia Evans can fit herself into ethereal Celtic or driving urban sound, and everything in between.
As for composer Brian Byrne, his music is gorgeous, both instrumental and songs (with O’Connor’s lyrics). Of great fascination is the combination of traditional Irish instruments with Latin brass. This show gives the musicians a chance to shine and the band absolutely steals the curtain call.
There are some weaknesses. I wanted more innovative projections on the wrap-around screen. At the moment, they are very routine like sunsets and flying birds and landscapes. This show also needs a real Broadway or West End costume designer because Monica Ennis and Niamh O’Connor just don’t cut it. In a word, the costumes are cheesy, even amateurish at times – like the dream sequence where the two women sport flowy, jagged-edge, balloon outfits. Only the short dresses for the Irish dance sequences are okay, but surely something more original could have been devised. In other words, the on-the-cheap look of the show does not match the level of the dance or music.
None of that really matters, however, because the dance and the music rock, and they are at the heart of Heartbeat of Home. Kudos to producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan for advancing their craft. Just think how great the new grandchild of Riverdance will be when it gets launched in another 20 years.
Heartbeat of Home, (choreography by David Bolger and John Carey), Mirvish Productions, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Jan. 21 to Mar. 2, 2014, www.mirvish.com.)