‘There’s always a heartbeat’: the original magic of Salsa Lesson, a Fringe review

Andrea House, Brittany Ward in Salsa Lesson. Photo by Jae Hoo Lee,

Salsa Lesson (Stage 25, Spotlight Cabaret)

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It may be true, as the singer tells us, that “there’s always a heartbeat even when you can’t hear it.” But you can, you can…. The irresistible rhythms of salsa pulse through this enchanting original multi-lingual “storytelling concert” from Stardust Players (Chasing Willie Nelson, Forget Me Not). 

The joint creation of the multi-talented actor/singer-songwriter Andrea House and jazz composer/pianist Chris Andrew, Salsa Lesson is a story that’s both expansively open-ended and as intensely precise as the houses on your block of your junior high classmates. It’s something you could never expect to find anywhere at the Fringe; you just have to be happy when you do.

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Salsa Lesson is of this place. Its music (and musicians and dancers) are cross-cultural. Its story has Edmonton locales, the drive past 23rd to Millwoods, past the Superstore and the MacDonalds…. Performed in Spanish mostly but also French, and English by House — an artist who wraps her supple voice easily around jazz, Latin, blues — the songs emerge in a strangely apt way in a story about divorce, aging, middle-aged uncertainty, chances lost, memories unearthed. And the story is told, in a kind of rhyming spoken-word rap — the program calls it, amusingly, “mom-rap” — to a musical score.  

The hot passionate pulse of salsa is led by the superb three-member band — pianist Andrew, percussionist Raul Gomez Tabera and bassist Rubim De Toledo — and accompanied by dancer/choreographer Brittany Ward partnering with guests from the Latin dance community. It heightens the stakes, and emotional possibilities, of a tale that the teller fears is just a cliché: crappy childhood, middled-aged, cheating husband, younger woman, “shit happens,” divorce … you know. “I’m a predictable stereotype,” she tells us. “I just really over-shared there.” 

The storyteller’s kids post her plight online behind her back— “our mom is sad and needs a boyfriend.” And she meets a Chilean man that way. Oscar tells her that they went to junior high together and he was in love with her. And here’s the spark of ignition: a friend with “a Groupon coupon” propels her into a salsa class. “I don’t want to feel bad no more … I don’t want to be sad no more.”

The writing is witty, the rhymes are fun, the spirit is rueful, the memories of her awkward junior high self are wincingly funny. “This isn’t our first rodeo,” she says of a brave foray with a girlfriend to a junior high Valentine’s Dance, in borrowed boobs. “It’s our second.”

Then passionate, emotionally exuberant Spanish songs of love, longing, and heartbreak, erupt and frame things in moonlight.  

Director Davina Stewart figures out how to put it all together, and House’s performance is both sly and open-hearted. You’ll feel lucky to be there.  

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