REVIEW: Riverdance

I’d be willing to bet that most of the cast of last night’s performance of Riverdance were toddlers the last time I saw the show live, 20 years ago. At the time, the show was an innovative modernization of traditional Irish step dancing.  For those who adore the Riverdance vibe and want to see not a step or note changed, there is plenty in this 20th Anniversary show for you. Most of the music, songs, and big dance numbers are largely unchanged (as far as I can tell) from the original, and the costumes, staging, and lighting, although updated, measure up to the style and standard of previous productions.

The new show seems to be following the theory: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And who can argue with success? But Riverdance made its mark by being innovative and groundbreaking, and if I have any disappointment with this version of the show, 20 years on, it is that it adheres to the letter of the original, but not the spirit.

In the classic numbers, the female lead dancer (Maggie Darlington) was as lovely as anyone to ever have danced the role. I’ve seen my share of professional Irish softshoe dancing, so it takes something special to thrill me. But Ms. Darlington did just that when she made her first entrance, hovering in an effortless and graceful leap like an emerald hummingbird, as well as in a later number when she executed the most perfect and elegant toe stand I have ever seen.

Still, I think it is unfortunate that the only completely new number – “Anna Livia” with the female dancers led by Ms. Darlington – actually held nothing new.  Don’t get me wrong. With something like 90% of Irish step dancers being girls and women, its way past time to give the ladies their chance in the limelight. But I was looking forward to some new steps, a new exploration of cross-cultural style, or at least an opportunity for Ms. Darlington to show her hardshoe chops.  Unfortunately, it was just another very nice number in the (now 20-year old) Riverdance style, with the same repertoire of steps as all the other hardshoe numbers.  Still, if you want to see more of the good, classic Riverdance style, the new number does not disappoint.

From my standpoint, another drawback of a slavish adherence to existing choreography and music is that it prevents us from enjoying the unique talents of the existing cast. The lead male dancer (James Greenan), although he did an excellent job executing the choreography made famous by Michael Flatley, really shines most when he exudes his own dance personality, as in the Trading Taps number. This number not only shows the virtuosity of both tappers and step dancers, but brings the show alive with its playfulness and display of camaraderie and chemistry between cast members.  This number was a highlight for both my companion and me, and, judging by the irruption of cheers and hoots of approval from the previously quiet audience, was a favorite of the rest of the audience as well.

A last (but not least) note of admiration goes to the show’s fiddler (Pat Mangan).  Not only is he an excellent and clever musician, and a thorough joy to hear, but the exuberant presence he displays on stage would make one think it was the first show he’d ever played. That sort of combination of talent and stage presence deserves a deeply felt “good on ye!”

In short, this production, although suffering a little from the reduced number of musical and vocal performers compared to the original, still mostly delivers on the pizazz, style, and production value of the original show.  Although I was hoping for the 20th Anniversary show to bring us more of the inventiveness and innovation for which the original show was acclaimed, there are still plenty of truly enjoyable moments, and some unique performances by new artists who put at least a little of their own very talented stamp on it.

Riverdance is at the State Theatre through March 27, 2016.  Tickets start at $42.50.

DEAL ALERT: Rush tickets are $25 each, 2 tickets per valid school ID, cash only. Rush tickets go on-sale two hours prior to the show. The rush line forms outside of the State Theatre. The sale of rush tickets is subject to availability and the resale of rush tickets is strictly prohibited.

Review by Karen Cieminski
Photo by Rob McDogall