Britain’s Ballroom Dance Craze Spawns Dynamic New Show

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Midnight Tango with Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace: Actors, Dancers and Miguel Angel (singer) with Tango Siempre, Phoenix Theatre, London, 5.2.2013. (JPr)

Vincent Simone & Flavia Cacace in MIDNIGHT TANGO; photo credit: Manuel Harlan
Vincent Simone & Flavia Cacace (c) Manuel Harlan

It was a dreadful night outside the theatre – the rather perfunctory red carpet saw any ‘celebrities’ attending scurrying in rapidly out of the wind and rain. Getting around the Crossrail hoardings around Tottenham Court Road station was also a nightmare. The last thing I was thinking about when sitting down in the Phoenix Theatre was Buenos Aires and tango – but this is such a wonderfully feel-good evening that I faced all those obstacles on the way home with more joy in my heart than when I had arrived.

I have written before how BBC TV’s Strictly Come Dancing and all its various international versions has played a tremendous part in making dancing popular worldwide again. Because of extravagant production values, wonderful costumes, the glitz and glamour, it is worthy of a top Las Vegas showroom. It has spawned an annual sell-out arena tour for Strictly Come Dancing itself, as well as, touring shows for some of the professional dancers who have found fame on the show. This year we have Brendan Cole’s Licence To Thrill, Anton and Erin Go To Hollywood (with Anton du Beke and Erin Boag for those who do not recognise just the first names), soon there will be Burn The Floor with Robin Windsor and Kristina Rihanoff and the summer will see Craig Revel Horwood’s own spin-off show Strictly Confidential. Overkill? Perhaps yes, but producers will only keep putting these shows on as long as people keep coming and they still seem to be … in droves.

Without Strictly, ‘Vincent and Flavia’ (their surnames Simone and Cacace are in smaller font on the front of the programme) who are described as ‘one of the country’s most successful Argentinean tango acts’ might have just continued tangoing round and about in relative obscurity, apart from to the cognoscenti, rather than appearing in a second West End run and UK tour of Midnight Tango. I must admit I like all things Strictly but the only other related show I have so far seen has been with ‘Anton and Erin’ whose partnership onstage in their rather lacklustre evening gave us almost exactly what we can see on TV. Here with Midnight Tango Vincent and Flavia give us something vastly different – and in some ways superior – to the programme that made their name.

The director is Karen Bruce and it is produced by Adam Spiegel and, coming full circle, Arlene Phillips, who used to be a judge on the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing. Vincent and Flavia – who are the choreographers of the show – are joined by 10 of the world’s best tango dancers and accompanied by Tango Siempre, an internationally renowned tango band. It relies very much on the audience’s familiarity with the TV couple’s central dance partnership but this would not be enough to carry the evening were it not for their undoubted charisma, consummate artistry and the evident joy in dance they display in all they do.

In fact, Flavia’s profile has never been higher. In 2011 she partnered Russell Grant to great public acclaim and they were nominated for a BAFTA TV Highlight of the Year when he was shot out of a cannon at the start of their jive routine at Wembley Stadium. This year she won what is described as ‘the much-prized glitter ball’ series prize performing with Olympic gymnast Louis Smith. In fact, Russell Grant was due to be appearing in Midnight Tango and was one of the reasons I was keen to revisit the show. Due to be Carlos, the bar owner, unfortunately this famous astrology was apparently unable to foresee the ‘black ice incident’ that damaged his shoulder and has kept him out of the show so far! Nevertheless on his birthday he came on stage to welcome us all and hoped we would celebrate with him by enjoying Midnight Tango that he had praised fulsomely.

The action takes place in a stylish late-night bar in Buenos Aires, possibly in the 1920s or 30s. Morgan Large’s set is the colour of rare beef and this seems rather appropriate for Argentina. This, as well as the elegant costumes and subtle lighting, bring us the glamorous essence of the tango, without any hint of the sweat, dust and dirt of the gauchos or slums from which it arose. The seven outstanding musicians are on stage and there is some comic relief from the characters of the bar owners, Carlos (Anthony Renshaw) and Rosa (Tricia Deighton) concerning the patching-up of a marriage that has gone stale. To be truthful their marital wars do look as though they belong to some other show but it was endearing to see how this older couple rekindled their relationship before our eyes. This seemed very touching in the end and actually might have benefitted from not having Russell Grant’s extravagant personality involved.

Otherwise the basic plot – slim as it is – uses dance, especially tango, to illustrate sensuality, passion, pain, jealously, reconciliation and joy in the age-old story of man (Pablo) falling in love with a beguiling woman (Sofia), losing her to another (El Gato), then fighting for her and winning her back. Vincent and Flavia (Pablo and Sofia) are an accomplished pairing and create the various changes of mood and emotion without words but persuasively just though the language of dance. Unfortunately all the high-kicks, flicks, hooked legs, poses, balances and lifts seem a little repetitive at times but the show is not long enough for that to be too worrisome. Vincent and Flavia are wonderful together and seem more relaxed in their ‘roles’ than last year, they dance fluidly and sensuously together and in the second half perform a dramatically eloquent rumba like a tug of war between two reluctant lovers. Their final tango had a passionate grandeur that will live long in my memory and was a fitting culmination to their increasingly dramatic and heartfelt duets as the story progresses.

The rest of the long-legged supporting cast are also very fine dancers – particularly Diomar Giraldo, as the broodingly handsome El Gato, who is Pablo’s rival for Sofia’s affection. They are all suitably showcased by Vincent and Flavia’s choreography that only occasionally drifts away into the Broadway dance idioms of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins. There is an extended fight sequence between Pablo, El Gato and their supporters over Sofia and much of that owes its antecedents to similar rivalry seen in West Side Story.

Midnight Tango’s music includes some of the greatest tangos, notably the Carlos Gardel classic, Por Una Cabeza, some familiar and not-so-familiar tunes from Astor Piazzolla, as well as, new music from members of Tango Siempre, Jacob Gade’s very familiar Jealousy and Tom Waits’ more modern Temptation. As last year, the Tango Siempre musicians, including Julian Rowland’s characterful bandoneón, add a genuine sense of authenticity to the proceedings through their accomplished playing. They tackle all the tango rhythms with style, fervour, and an innate sensitivity for the musical genre. Miguel Angel sings several songs in their original language and engages with the performers on stage very well. I still believe some more English words during the evening would be useful as he never really connects with the audience as well as Tricia Deighton’s poignant Temptation does, because it is sung in the vernacular.

At the end everyone rose to their feet in the theatre to acclaim the talented company led by Vincent and Flavia. They cannot fail to lift the spirits of all who see this for the first time – or once again – in 2013, either in the West End or during its extensive UK tour: for myself, I would willingly be tango-ed again in the future.

Jim Pritchard