Some have described Roni Benise's Nights of Fire! as a cross between Latin Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil. The man himself, who's in the middle of his first national tour, chooses to describe his performance as the "United Nations of music." No matter what you call it, Benise's Nights of Fire! is big.
The show features Benise on Spanish guitar, backed by some 50 performers, including 12 dancers who perform flamenco, salsa and rumba numbers. The latter is an ethnically diverse female group, clad in brightly hued tops and bottoms, doing flamboyant dances that originate in Spain, Brazil and Cuba. The show also features an original eight-piece "Benise" band and an orchestra, with additional percussionists playing such exotic instruments as the African djembe drum. Big screens project images of color, light and form that change with the music's beat. Huge billows of colored fabric fall like stars from the ceiling, while an aerial artist performs a flamenco dance on the stage floor and high into air.
And Benise the man who parlayed Spanish guitar into Vegas-style world music entertainment is, from his elevated platform, the show's star.
You'd assume Benise is a native Spaniard, or from some music center in South America. Hardly.
"I came from the hotbed of flamenco: Nebraska," Benise says. "I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, an hour from the nearest town."
Growing up, Benise whiled away hours by plucking rock 'n' roll on a guitar. He moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and cleaned swimming pools by day, playing guitar in various rock bands at night.
Then one day he had an epiphany after hearing flamenco on the radio. He tossed aside his electric guitar in favor of a classical nylon stringer. "I was at a crossroads in my life, coming out of a failed relationship, and the Spanish guitar felt so real ... but it takes you to an exotic place."
The Los Angeles music scene isn't exactly easy, and the band, like thousands of other L.A. bands, had difficulty finding paying venues. So they busked Southern California streets, made a CD and now they're debuting their first national tour. It was that simple. In fact, the group's huge road caravan includes three buses and three semis for musicians, dancers, sets and lights.
"It's the chemistry we have," Benise says about the group's quick slide up into success. "We're family, and we've added dancers who have become like an extended family."
This camaraderie rises in performance, and, like any Vegas show, it stretches out to the audience.
Thursday, May 11, at Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St.; 248-399-2980.Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]