Theater Review: RIVERDANCE (20th Anniversary Tour)

Post image for Theater Review: RIVERDANCE (20th Anniversary Tour)

by Lawrence Bommer on April 6, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


What Stomp delivered through percussive street-dancing, Forever Tango gave to Argentina’s national cooch dance, and A Chorus Line and 42nd Street did for tap, Riverdance breathtakingly offers Irish dance and its cultural spin-offs. Wowing rapt crowds at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre in its 20th anniversary world tour, this high-hoofing extravaganza can pound a stage to raise the dead. It’s impossible not to get caught up in its chief contradiction–the spontaneous thrill as the literally kneejerk precision of a line-dance of awesomely coordinated feet drives home a beat that feels stronger than your heart. And, instead of defying gravity like classical ballet, step dancing seems to thrive on it, as it thrusts almost blurry lower limbs into the stage as much as onto the floor.

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Conceived by Moya Doherty and shaped by John McColgan into a hit in Dublin, London, New York, Cork and Belfast (with help from Michael Flatley before he broke away to become the “Lord of the Dance”), this supple show traces Irish dance–embodied in the endless variations of the jig–through its influence on Harlem tap-dancing, Spanish flamenco, even Cossack dervish spins. Bill Whelan provides a supple score that traces the Celtic beat across the years and continents. And, discarded for the 2010 tour, the Russian sequence has been thrillingly restored. Other changes: spanking new costumes by Joan Bergin, even more state-of-the-art lighting, and a large video screen with new projections. Also, not incidentally, there’s an a cappella hard-shoe number, “Anna Livia,” beautifully showcasing the women dancers to provide a bit more gender balance.

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Once you get past John Kavanagh’s pretentious narration (which recalls the pompous voice-overs in That’s Dancin’), Riverdance quickly scores a choreographic integrity. Accompanied by a terrific four-person orchestra (down from the original 13, then 5 in the last tour) on exotic-to-inexplicable instruments and performed against a video screen of gorgeous projections (down from three screens), these inexhaustible young dancers recapture the tribal terrors and Dionysian abandon of ancient Gaelic dance. They also incarnate a spring harvest, firedance, thunderstorm, “Reel Around the Sun,” and “American Wake” (alluding to the great migration of the mid-19th century).

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Exemplified by lead dancers Maggie Darlington and Stephen Brennan, the jig becomes a dance incantation where the lack of arm movement channels tension and energy into the blurred legs. (The brain clearly isn’t wired enough to supervise both.) The Riverdance Irish Dance Troupe combine the easeful elegance of a coursing thoroughbred with a dexterity of tap heels striking the stage (or each other) quicker than the eye (or ear) can follow.

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Moving from a silhouette against a firestorm backdrop, Marita Martinez-Rey emerges to perform an equally flaming flamenco, its insistent rhythms taking up the beat of the jigs before it. Easily the pile-driving evening’s most astonishingly original event is a dance-off between Michael Everett and Christopher Broughton, tap-dancing Harlem terpsichoreans, and a trio of Irish steppers. The “Trading Taps” contest triggers the best from both backgrounds: It flows irresistibly between the sensuous hip-swings, acrobatic flips and break-dancing bravura of the African-American duo and the unbending accuracy of the arm-less, hip-less jig trotters. You’ve never seen the like.

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Performed by the orchestra, soloist Michael Everett and the Riverdance Singers, musical interludes deliver a lament to the fallen hero Caoineadh Chu Chulainn, spring and harvest, and the emigrants’ homesickness for the Olde Sod. A fiddler on the stage, Pat Mangan entrances as much as Tevye’s mystical musician. Almost as dazzling as the dancing, John Comiskey’s new lighting, precisely synchronized to his projections of moons, stars and seascapes, unleashes torrents of strobe-like lightning and rock-concert refulgence.


The truest tribute to these disciplined dancers, even in this downsized version, is how hard it is to believe you see what you feel; the latter seems so much stronger than the former. But, as you hear these lithe bodies land on foot to prove it’s all about the legs, you savor Yeats’ wondrous paradox, “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?”

photos by Jack Hartin and Rob McDougal

Riverdance – The 20th Anniversary World Tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St
ends on April 10, 2016
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago
world tour plays through May, 2016
for dates and cities, visit Riverdance

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