It has taken Michael Flatley’s latest extravaganza an oddly long time to reach the only country where audiences are sure to understand its title. “Celtic Tiger” is the local expression used to describe the last 15 years of Irish history, as a former backwater has become, by many calculations, the most globalized culture in the world. Flatley is not first-generation Irish, however, but Irish-American, and it is at his fellow descendants of Erin that this latest show is clearly aimed: Those far enough removed from the source culture to buy into the production’s liberties with history, relentless romanticizing and often shameless exploitation of images and songs to stir nationalist sentiments.
The premise of the show (which premiered in Budapest in 2004 and has since toured the U.S., U.K. and Europe) is that the first act retells Irish history, while the second celebrates, according to the program, “the triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit in a land rich in promise.” It is never really clear whether that land is the U.S. or Ireland: The second half vaguely zigzags between numbers celebrating American culture (the finale is “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) and others more focused on the thrusting prosperity of contempo Ireland.
The show is staged on a large platform backed by a gargantuan video screen, on which images supporting the action are projected. It is mostly made up of “Riverdance”-style Irish dance numbers, interspersed with a few songs and video montages.
While he launches most of the dances, Flatley then drops out and lets the ensemble take over; at 47, his endurance is probably not what it used to be. But this show, nonetheless, is clearly a projection of his sensibility and worldview: While he doubtless understands all its internal connections and logical leaps, an outside critical eye would have helped open up its meanings to viewers.
Images of militarism and violence are one of the predominant themes of the show, from a dance retelling of the carnage of the 1916 Irish Easter Rising to a second-act gangster number in which Flatley mimes mowing down the audience with a machine gun.
The other main visual theme is women as temptresses and sex objects: One of the first scenes involves women in red bodysuits slithering, serpent-like, over male dancers dressed as monks (representing, presumably, St. Patrick proverbially driving the snakes out of Ireland), while the second-act opener features a blond in an Aer Lingus flight attendant uniform stripping to reveal a star-spangled bikini.
The first act portrays the Irish as impoverished but indomitable victims of relentless British tyranny, repped by the male chorus dressed in red coats, blue trousers and white ponytail wigs. Ironically, the straight-backed, straight-legged style of choreography in this number brings a welcome sense of discipline to the dancing, which is otherwise, overall, somewhat raggedly executed.
Such a binary portrayal of Ireland’s relationship to Britain has long since been rejected locally as too narrow and retrograde; in Flatley’s retelling, it is as if the last 30 years of Irish political history, in particular the Northern peace process, never happened.
He also mixes up historical chronologies to further portray the British as murderous oppressors; the first-act finale, in which Flatley encourages the audience to sing the rebel anthem “A Nation Once Again,” has a chillingly republican flavor.
These lame attempts at political commentary get in the way of the razzmatazz and showmanship that are clearly Flatley’s forte. Had the show remained a relatively disconnected series of numbers and musical turns — the female chorus dressed as flora and fauna in the blissfully silly “The Garden of Eden” ballet; different pairs of ethnic dancers strutting their stuff in “New World,” which shamelessly knocks off the same moment in “Riverdance”; several numbers in which Flatley shows off his surprising prowess as a flautist — it probably would have worked much better.
As it is, the production feels like an expression of Flatley’s apparently limitless sense of personal manifest destiny: Having conquered the better part of the Western world with his shows, he cannot help but return to the culture he understands as his source, bearing representations that reveal just how far removed he is from it.