Battle of the Dance Is Cheesy Good

Battle of the Dance isn't the disaster that is the yet-to-debut SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark. A reported $10 million was spent to convert an abandoned Toys R Us building on Harbor Boulevard just south of Disneyland into a 950-seat theater, but chances are few have heard of this 2-month-old flamenco-versus-Irish-stepdancing dinner show imported from Spain. Those who have probably already dismissed it as cheesy. To observe the deserted parking lot on the particularly slow Thursday evening I attended is to conclude a lot of people did. If it doesn't feature sword-clanging knights on horseback, dinner theater around these parts is a hard sell.

With so few bodies in attendance, the sparseness of the dull-as-a-warehouse preshow area stood out. A hastily cobbled gift shop resembles a swap-meet stall. The plain-painted walls look as though they stopped with the primer. Save for the full-sized mockup of the back-end of a Spanish galleon atop of which a piano-playing lounge singer performed, one wonders where that $10 million went.

The website all but promised a multitude of appetizers to be offered prior to the show, but I saw only a single server come out with a tray of microscopic skewers of steak. At this point, one begins to question whether the $60 to $90 cost of the ticket was a wise investment. Being led into a theater that looked as chintzy as a community-college lecture hall didn't help. And on that night, when fewer than 40 people were in attendance, those who spent $90 to get VIP seats realized the $60 seats were just one row behind them.

The markup now had to be justified by the food. A regular ticket entitles the bearer to a choice between chicken or prime rib, a shrimp salad or a vegetable soup, and dessert. Those who paid the premium had the added option of a criminally dry macadamia-nut-crusted mahi mahi or a filet mignon after the first course, which can either be a surprisingly rich lobster bisque or a salmon salad with an anemic strip of the smoked fish. A $90 ticket also brings a rubbery dessert that I assumed to be chocolate-mousse cake. Prepared en masse, this was the kind of food I expected from a dinner theater. The prime rib was uniformly overdone, the whole slab a sodden grey sponginess where it wasn't rimmed with fat. Regardless of the protein, every plate came with an equally soggy mound of oven-roasted potatoes and an expected roll call of steamed-and-buttered carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and yellow squash.

All that was left to save the evening was the show. And it did. It began with the Spanish galleon rolling into the theater, followed by an obligatory but half-hearted sword fight. If there was a story line here, it was immediately forgotten the minute the shadow puppeteer ambled onstage, set up a projector and started the unenviable job of winning the audience over by turning the silhouettes of his fingers into kissing monkeys and, among other things, Madonna. This set the mood for a hilarious ventriloquist, who had the remarkable ability to yodel without so much as a lip quiver. An acrobat elicited gasps as he demonstrated feats of inhuman strength by doing single-handed stands on top of a tall pole, his muscles and sinew slowly flexing to support the weight of his body. My date gripped my arm as the acrobat dangled dangerously above the stage.

Then came the dancing. My God, the dancing: twirls of color, an ever-rotating array of costumes, the furious flurry of feet and heel stomps that echoed though the empty theater like gunshots. Somewhere in the middle, they managed to fit a Bollywood number that I could've watched for hours and a rousing flamenco routine to Ravel's Bolero that caused the theater to roar with applause. It all culminated in a West Side Story-esque showdown between the Irish and Spanish troupes that saw more feet becoming blurs of frenetic movement and ended with the dancers dripping with sweat to the hoots of an audience outnumbered by performers.

After nearly two hours of joyous, infectious, go-for-broke performances from everyone who worked their butts off to show you a good time, all earlier gripes disappeared. This was a show worth the price of admission, especially when I saw that the receipt for my $90 ticket broke down the cost. It allocated $13.79 plus tax for the three-course dinner and the remaining $75 for the show—an amount that now seemed exactly right after the enthusiastic effort I witnessed. Yes, it was cheesy. But sometimes, cheese is delicious.

This review appeared in print as “Battle of the Cheese: People who go to OC’s newest dinner show should focus more on the show and less on the dinner.”

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