World Tour Theater Review: RIVERDANCE (Oriental Theatre in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on March 14, 2012

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

RIVER OF DREAMS

All good things must come to an end, they say, so it was inevitable that Riverdance would finally end its run, at least in the United States. But will it ever be missed. Playing for a paltry week of performances at the Oriental Theatre, the show bids farewell to Chicago, but it’s going out on top, with just as much spectacular dancing, music, and singing as it brought to cheering audiences when it first hit town in the late 1990s.

Riverdance Photo 1

As every theatergoer in the western world must know, the show is a celebration of Irish culture, a canny blend of Celtic tradition and modern show business savvy. The Riverdance signature has always been the performance of massed dancers with their torsos rigid, their arms stiffly at their sides, their faces impassive, astonishing viewers with the intricacy and speed of their movements from the waist down. The opening sequence has to be the most thrilling piece of choreography since the first 10 minutes of A Chorus Line.

The production at the Oriental Theatre will be familiar to veteran patrons of the show with its mix of dance, choral singing, and instrumental interludes. There is no plot and no dialogue other than John Kavanagh reciting poetry in his plummy voice. A publicity note states that 1,500 Irish dancers have performed in the show, none better than the group gathered for this farewell tour.

Riverdance Photo 3

The chorus of athletic and lithe young bodies presents the choreography (partly created by Chicago’s own Michael Flatley) with the customary remarkable precision. The principal dancers rotate from performance to performance, but on opening night the audience was treated to a sensational feast of technique and stage presence by Alana Mallon and Padraic Moyles.

In an evening of showstoppers, the highlight once again is the duo tap dancing exhibition, this time by DeWitt Fleming, Jr., and Michael E. Wood, hoofing in the fluid American manner. The two young men are then joined by three male Irish dancers in a spectacular cutting contest with the two styles facing off with “try to top this” exhilaration. It was a draw. The furious tapping was doubly impressive because Wood had just led the ensemble in a long choral song “Heal Their Hearts—Freedom.” He had to shift gears from the emotional intensity of that song to his free-wheeling, often comic, tap dance number. Amazing stuff.

Riverdance Photo 5

For some reason, this intensely Irish show finds room for demonstrations of Spanish flamenco dancing. The temperaments of the two traditions may differ, but the performance by Marita Martinez-Rey was just as rousing in its way as the drill team display by the Irish dancers.

Four musicians are located at the left of the stage and Mark Alford presides with boundless energy over his massed percussion set at the right. The amount of music provided by the five musicians is superior in the excellence of its solos and its rich orchestral sound, thanks to the keyboard work by music director Declan Masterson. Violinist Rose Duffy dazzles with her speed-of- sound playing on Irish reels, but she’s also a master of the haunting slow number. There is also fine work by Dave McGauran on soprano saxophone and Matt Bashford on a variety of reed instruments and a bagpipe-like contraption called the Uillean pipes.

Riverdance Photo 6

The physical production is kept basic to allow the dancers the unencumbered space they require. The main visual flourish is a sequence of realistic and abstract images designed by Benjamin Pearcy and projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage. Joan Bergin designed the massive costume wardrobe, Robert Ballagh the set and Michael O’Gorman the sound.

In 15 years of existence and numerous visits to Chicagoland, Riverdance never got old. Part of its success resides in the brilliance of its choreography and part from the unfailing high quality of its performers. I’ve seen the show five times and every performance was a tribute to the talent and professionalism of everyone involved. Each performer who set foot on the stage was a star.

Riverdance Photo 2

The show will continue to perform overseas after its final U.S. engagement ends on June 17. Maybe an American reunion tour will happen in the future. There are precedents. Mamma Mia! and Cats come back with relentless consistency, so we can live in hope. Our entertainment world certainly is a poorer place with Riverdance no longer on the scene.

photos by Joan Marcus

Riverdance
national tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre in Chicago
ends on March 18, 2012
world tour ends on August 5, 2012
NEW world tour plays Jan.-Aug., 2016
for tickets, visit Riverdance

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bob March 26, 2016 at 8:33 pm

Ok, if you like a multicultural celebration…

I attended the March 26, 2016, 2:00pm performance of Riverdance at the State Theatre in Minneapolis MN. First off it was too loud. The State Theatre is a glorious venue but too small for the high volume.

Riverdance was originally represented as modernized Irish cultural dance and music. Thankfully the majority of the performance I saw was based on traditional Irish dance and music. The other reviews can describe the grandeur of the Irish part of the performance.

For the heart of Irish heritage, come to the world’s largest Irish fair outside of Ireland in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The local Irish dance schools present Irish dancing during the entire three days. Wonderful traditional music and history and storytelling.

This Riverdance multicultural celebration included dance from Spain, Russia and Africa. The music for Spanish and Russian dance had embedded Celtic music. Unquestionably entertaining but not culturally authentic. A man of African descent sang a lament implying the African slave trade, but slavery was multicultural: Irish slaves came to the Americas before African slaves. (Read the book White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh.)

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