The original Irish stepdancing show that has spawned a seemingly countless number of imitators, Riverdance succeeds as an entertainment almost despite itself. It has a laughably pretentious narration that is more purple than green, a structure that is as airy as the foam on a pint of Guinness, and choreography (for all its energy and precision) that has less to say than a leprachaun who has lost his pot of gold. Nevertheless, Riverdance has discovered its own pot of gold by virtue of the show's fundamental theme--that, regardless of what country you come from, the dance you think of as your own is just a step--literally--from the dance of some other land.
With that concept showcased and explored in a variety of dance sequences, the show does offer something physically and intellectually pleasing to behold. For this reason, the pseudo-mythic mumbo-jumbo about Ireland that serves as narrative really only gets in the way of the larger point of Riverdance: the notion and suggestion of a terpsichorean United Nations. This idea isn't a new element in the show; Riverdance made the same point--with some different dance routines and different songs--the last time it came to town. But it still works.
There are a handful of vocal performances salted throughout the show, plus a number of instrumental interludes. Among the singers, Tsidii Le Loka (of The Lion King fame) stands out for making two banal anthems far more exciting than they deserve to be with her passionate and soaring interpretations. Unfortunately, Irish tenor Brian Kennedy has no such luck with his tunes. All of the instrumental numbers are effective save one, largely because they are done with a sweet sincerity; the only turnoff is the self-conscious and entirely fake posturing of the fiddler, Athena Tergis.
Now, to the dancing. The visceral effect of watching this talented troupe of Irish dancers careen like gazelles across the expansive Gershwin Theatre stage is unabashedly thrilling. The choreography may not be saying much, but the sheer beauty of so many pounding, swinging feet, underscored by a symphony of drums, has an undeniable power. And when the dancers end up in a kick line, you can't help but feel infinite pity for The Rockettes. The lead Irish female dancer, Eileen Martin, looks like a sprite; as delicate as she is dynamic, she is mesmerizing to watch. The Irish male lead, Pat Roddy, was out of the show when we attended and was replaced by understudy Conor Hayes, who performed with the exuberance and joy of someone getting his big break. He's not a particularly charismatic dancer, however, and his upper body gestures--those silly salutes made famous by the likes of Michael Flatley--seem particularly awkward.
While the Irish stepdancers are the heart of the show, the highlight of the evening is closer to home as three African-American tap dancers take on three Irish stepdancers. Our local heroes, led by Walter "Sundance" Freeman, mop the floor with their stiff-legged cousins. But cousins they are, as this delightfully playful segment artfully explains. With style and exhilarating skill, the Americans and the Irish challenge one another--even comically mimic each other--until we see the overlap of their art. Similarly, we see Russian dancers who make a point of exaggerating their own national steps to the point where we can see the origins of American swing dancing. In their own right, the dancers from the Moscow Folk Ballet Company are as amazing as the American tappers. Less effective is Maria Pages, who is supposed to illustrate the similarities between flamenco and Irish stepdancing. Lacking the appropriate fire and passion, Pages ends up vogueing more than dancing.
Robert Ballagh's set looms around the edges of the stage like some sort of ersatz Stonehenge. Joan Bergin's costume designs swing erratically between competently conservative and wildly goofy, the latter exemplified by one segment in which the Irish male dancers are dressed in bizarre, futuristic, shiny outfits. What is that about? It's a question that rattles around the entire production; director John McColgan never does get a firm handle on the show, but at least he makes enough of it work so that its sum is greater than its parts.
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