Michael Flatley is a commanding stud on the stage, a tough guy with supple hips and feet that move with jackhammer speed. Noticeably heftier than when he leaped center stage in the original "Riverdance" with the chesty pride of a caped crusader, Flatley's blue-collar body still, at age 47, floats effortlessly above his fluttering feet. It can be breathtaking to watch him dance.
Talent is one thing; taste is another, and it doesn't take a purist to wonder why Flatley's latest arena-size extravaganza, "Celtic Tiger" (at the Patriot Center Saturday night), tried so hard to emulate ads for American beer and pickup trucks. The show was an orgy of flag-waving and sentiment, with Flatley escorting dear old Ireland and its proud culture into the commercial glitz of 21st-century America.
What can you say about a show in which a demure Irish flight attendant gets metaphorically flown to America and then gleefully strips down to a red, white and blue bikini? It's a full-blown bump and grind, a long way from the rigid upper body and slashing feet of traditional Irish dance.
The American-born and -raised Flatley likes to have it both ways, of course; he has minted money with the genre-bending spectacles he's created in the decade since leaving on bitter terms the "Riverdance" sensation that he helped create. "Celtic Tiger" is full of misty-eyed homage to Ireland: Balladeers warble sappy tunes about the country's "warriors, poets and dreamers," and the three large video screens onstage are routinely filled with gorgeous aerial vistas of the Emerald Isle.
Irish dance is always at the heart of Flatley's choreography, even when he tinkers with other styles. A second act number made the melting pot notion explicit: One couple danced a flamenco, another sashayed like Astaire and Rogers, and hip-hop and classical ballet were sampled as dozens of dancers watched and cheered from the back of the stage. Then the company swarmed into action, with men and women slashing freely across the floor in long diagonal lines, sporting funky two-piece outfits and incorporating rogue influences -- even the occasional back flip -- into the bouncing taps and kicks made internationally famous by "Riverdance."
Flatley made dramatic use of those standard movements in "Celtic Tiger" when British Redcoats invaded the stage and the Irish, called to arms by Flatley's defiant tap routine, put up a fight. The choreography effectively harnessed the natural tension of Irish dancing, becoming a showdown of rapid kicks and aggressive, angular tapping.
Nothing was more exciting, though, than Flatley's appearance in giant silhouette as a gangster. He swaggered into full view on an empty stage, looking natty and dangerous in a pinstripe suit, and his feet beat out rhythms in machine-gun time. The number swelled as gals in white pantsuits and black tap shoes joined in for a dance that melded old Ireland and vintage Hollywood. Showy, high-spirited stuff.
Flatley has earned his status as a star, and he runs a tight ship: His dancers moved with martial precision, whether creating rudimentary geometric shapes (there were plenty of triangles and circles, some of which neatly divided, like cells) or reacting crisply to his drill-sergeant directives.
But most of "Celtic Tiger" aimed low and hit its mark. It was dull and crass, with Flatley shoving "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at the crowd over and over while a hectic video montage senselessly pureed Irish and U.S. imagery. The bikini babe kept reappearing, too, underlining "Celtic Tiger's " declaration that Ireland and its arts have been sexed up and Americanized. Hooray.