Review: Heartbeat of Home is a stage-thumping success
★★★★ By: Richard Ouzounian – Theatre Critic, Toronto Star TheStar.com
Surprise is the best element that a piece of live entertainment can possess, and Heartbeat of Home, which had its North American premiere Sunday afternoon at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, is positively jam-packed with the nicest kind of surprises.
If you were a fan of Riverdance, you’re probably expecting more of the same, since this show is created by the same duo — John McColgan and Moya Doherty — who launched that earlier hard-shoe phenomenon and sent it spinning around the world like a step-dancing satellite.
And rest assured, there’s a lot of Irish dancing in Heartbeat of Home, performed with rat-a-tat-tat precision by a dynamic cast. If you’re a newcomer to the form, you’ll be blown away. If you’re already a fan, you’ll fall in love all over again.
But McColgan and Doherty are canny showmen and they’ve expanded the terpsichorean world of their earlier success to reflect some of the numerous ethnic changes that have occurred both in their native Dublin and around the world.
The famous “40 shades of green” that mark the Emerald Isle have added a whole palette filled with browns and blacks to the colour mix, reflecting the tides of Latin and Afro-Cuban immigration over the past 20 years since Riverdance first opened.
You wouldn’t know it at first. The amazing lighting by Peter Canning begins by picking out a series of step-dancers, one by one, with laser-like precision. Their tight black clothing, the Uzi-blast sound of their feet, the pride of their carriage are all familiar and yet exhilarating.
But before you can get too comfortable, the music changes tempo, the lighting grows brighter and a team of Latin dancers join the mix, with the Irish adapting their steps to accompany them.
And then a troupe of Afro-Cuban artists slash across the stage, creating the same dramatic effect that made the opening number of Ragtime — for example — so spectacular, as three different cultures existed separately and yet together.
From there on, there’s no turning back. We are on a journey from a small island where people of many cultures exist separately to a larger body of land, where they can all live their lives in happy coexistence.
There are no spoken words needed, and even the lyrics of Joseph O’Connor to the stirring music of Brian Byrne offer us feelings rather then plot points. We’re in the theatre to be carried away by the power of music, dance and visual artistry, with the projections of David Torpey adding an element of magic that keeps things in constantly pleasing motion.
It may sound like a shallow thing to say, but this is probably the most physically attractive company that I can recall anywhere. To paraphrase the famous line from Cabaret: “The boys are beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful.” And the fact that this beauty is so ethnically varied only adds to its potency.
The packaging of Heartbeat of Home is first-class, to be sure, but the dancing is world-class, and that’s what we come for.
David Bolger is in charge of the overall choreography/musical staging, and his ability to co-ordinate all the various styles so that they never seem like a step-dancing mash-up is breathtaking.
And pride of place must also go to the great John Carey, who has taken the minimalist form of Irish dance and found seemingly limitless variations within it.
Everyone who sees the show will have their own favourite performers, but I was particularly impressed by Bobby Hodges, a young man who combines the energy of Gene Kelly with the grace of Fred Astaire and offers the charm of both.
Ciara Sexton is the kind of dark-haired pixie you might imagine playing Tinker Bell in a Dublin production of Peter Pan, but her skills are mischievous as well as elfish. And Clare Craze, the Latin dance captain, is a ball of kinetic energy and coiled sexuality whom I defy you to take your eyes off. She’s tremendous.
But they all are, as is the entire event called Heartbeat of Home. It’s a spectacular celebration of the human spirit that provides non-stop entertainment as well. That’s quite the combination.