Energy, sensuality and spectacle: Riverdance rivets

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

Riverdance, the riveting celebration of Irish music and dance that tapped its way onto the world stage 16 years ago, stopped last night at The Forum in Binghamton in the midst of its farewell tour. A second performance is tonight (Wednesday, March 31).
In case you’re one of the few people on the planet not familiar with Riverdance, the show began as a seven-minute dance segment during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest and quickly turned into a full-scale production that has thrilled millions worldwide. In fact, Riverdance has become a cultural icon of energy, sensuality and spectacle.
This cast is young, the members mentally and physically at their peak. Several years on, there will be inevitable knee replacement surgery, given what they’re doing to their joints, but today, they’re exploding with youthful vigor. They may look cool as cucumbers from the balcony, but from a fifth-row seat, you can see that they’re sweating profusely — while having the time of their lives.
Composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, Riverdance has played more than 10,000 performances and has been seen live by more than 21 million people in more than 32 countries. The casts have traveled the equivalent of going to the moon and back; played to a worldwide television audience of nearly 2 billion and sold more than 3 million copies of their Grammy Award-winning platinum CD and more than 10 million videos (Lady Ga Ga, eat your heart out). They’ve danced at the Kremlin, atop the Great Wall of China and into your living room, via PBS specials.
In a nutshell, Riverdance features clogging by lads and lasses to Irish jigs and reels, interspersed with dances from other cultures (Flamenco, Russian folk dances, American tap), songs, instrumentals and fragments of story lines.
Although there were no pledge breaks, there were plenty of opportunities to spend my money. Salesgirls strutted the aisles, hawking souvenir programs, DVDs and CDs, and in the lobby, you could buy Riverdance spinoff products ranging from baseball caps to Irish teddy bears.
Having seen versions of the show on PBS forever, I can tell you the live performance has it all over television. It was one showstopper after another … hauntingly lovely songs by soprano soloist Laura Yanez and members of the company; superb instrumental solos by piper Declan Masterson, fiddler Pat Mangan, percussionist Mark Alfred and saxophonist Daniel Dorrance, and, of course, those thundering, percussive Irish step-dance routines by soloists and the chorus line. And, as a bonus: exuberant acrobatic dancing by members of the Moscow Folk Ballet.
Lead dancer Marty Dowds stole the show at every opportunity with his footwork pyrotechnics.
All this was against a clever minimalist set, a series of projected images on scrims (fabrics that are opaque when front-lit but translucent when back-lit) and curtains, made atmospheric with occasional billows of smoke.
Is it possible they’ve suspended the laws of physics for this troupe? Dancers leaped and hovered above the stage for a split longer than possible. Big, burly men executed cartwheels on one hand. Chorus line dancers tapped highly complex, synchronized rhythms as if they were a single dancer.
I had a few gripes: The music was too loud. The injection of two Flamenco numbers, although dancer Rocio Montoya is sinuous and beautiful, was one too many; the injection of story line, via hokey poetry by a deep-voiced narrator, seemed unnecessary. And the inclusion of the song “Freedom,” sung by gifted baritone soloist Michael Samuels, was a showstopper in a negative sense, a cliché (harkening back to “Ol’ Man River”) designed to induce cheap tears.
Channeling the curmudgeonly Gene Grey, (the late “Press & Sun-Bulletin” reviewer), I have one more nit to pick: Why did all the musical arrangements, no matter what country the music hailed from, sound like Irish jigs?
But these were all minor criticisms. Overall, Riverdance was exhilarating with a capital E.
Take the electrifying number where a line of male dancers performed a complex jig without a single note of music.
Or the dueling tap-dance number pitting Dowds and his Irish cohorts against American tap dancers Jason Bernard and Kelly Isaac, furiously fast and hilarious — the only time Riverdance dropped its serious tone and made fun of itself.
And, of course, there was a grand finale, an explosion of roaming lights, wild backgrounds and the Riverdance trademark — seemingly impossible feats of dancing – followed by a choreographed curtain call that reprised the whole show.

TICKET INFORMATION

A second performance presented by the Broadway Theatre League will be held at 7:30 p.m. today (March 31) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Tickets are $61.50, $51.50 and $37.50, available by calling the Forum box Office or Ticketmaster.
Find more information about Riverdance at: broadway.binghamton.com, riverdance.com or www.broomeforum.com

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