Theatre

A blast of Celtic heat

John Bemrose July 1 1998
Theatre

A blast of Celtic heat

John Bemrose July 1 1998

A blast of Celtic heat

Theatre

NEEDFIRE

Directed by Kelly Robinson

Waves of step-dancers, those storm troopers of the dance world, thunder towards the audience while pipes, fiddles and drums feverishly announce a second Culloden. Obviously the Celts are coming—again. First it was Riverdance, the slick, internationally successful show of Irish singing and dancing. That was followed by an ambitious breakaway show, The Lord of the Dance. And now Canada’s Celtic community is presenting

Needfire, an extravaganza featuring more than 40 dancers and a raft of nationally celebrated musicians and singers, including John McDermott, Mary Jane Lamond and The Irish Descendants. Needfire— the name of an ancient Celtic rite of the hearth—launched its world première last week at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. Producers David and Ed Mirvish are hoping that, by the end of its month-long run, the show will have found co-producers in other Canadian cities.

The antecedents for Needfire are not just Riverdance and its kind, but every megamusical and Broadway show of the past 50 years. The idea is to overwhelm the audience with nonstop sensation. And so no one in Needfire simply sings or plays in splendid isolation—at least not for more than a few bars. Usually, there are dancers whirling, too, or blue smoke billowing under throbbing lights, while the sound system is jacked to the max. This may be problematic

for those who think the essence of Celtic music is a haunting lyricism, simply expressed. But for those who prefer entertainment on a grand scale, Needfire is an impressive achievement.

Certainly, its range is great. At one end of the spectrum is tenor McDermott, who specializes in sentimental ballads such as My Ain Folk, about an immigrant’s longing for the family back in Scotland. McDermott can sing with the angels, but his material is often hopelessly dated. Other acts show that Gaeldom still has a cutting edge. Needfire’s most potent singer is easily Mary Jane

Lamond, who performs in Scottish Gaelic, and gives the ancient tongue a poignancy that sweeps the show’s decorative distractions aside to make a vital connection with the audience.

At heart, for all its technical gimmickry and non-stop showmanship, Needfire is really just a big, old-fashioned variety show—Don Messer’s Jubilee with attitude. It is pretentious at times: the singers’ use of headset mikes is a bald steal from the musical Rent, and completely unnecessary. But the talent is of the highest order, ably supported by the hokey, Down East charm of the show’s narrator, Denny Doherty, former lead singer of the 1960s pop group The Mamas and the Papas. It’s true, the whole thing could be infinitely subtler. But Needfire is really about Celts in full attack mode: the only choice is to flee or joyfully surrender.

JOHN BEMROSE