Review: ‘Riverdance’ still flows after 20 years

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 5, 2018 (Gephardt Daily) — I’ll say this right off the bat: I am by no means a specialist reviewer of dance.

Therefore, when I write about dance, particularly Irish dance, which I don’t know a lot about, I’m reviewing from the point of view of a regular audience member, and assessing more how the performance made me feel.

The current “Riverdance” show is billed “The 20th Anniversary World Tour.” Riverdance, actually, was effectively born almost 24 years ago as an intermission feature at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. It made its now historic debut as a full-scale show the following February.

Since then, the show has visited more than 450 venues worldwide and been seen by more than 25 million people, making it one of the most successful dance productions in the world.

Because I’m English, and grew up there, I sort of have a loose general awareness of the Riverdance phenomenon; I’d have had to grow up under a mossy rock if I’d never seen it at all, since it’s pretty high profile over there. So I’ve seen segments of it on English TV, but I’ve definitely never seen the live show.

Broadway at the Eccles is presenting “Riverdance” at the Eccles Theater through Sunday, April 8. Deftly drawing on Irish traditions, the combined talents of the performers propel Irish dancing and music into the present day, in an innovative and exciting blend of dance, music and song.

There were a few things about the show I was surprised by. I was definitely expecting the production to stick to Irish dance, which when it did was show stopping. The act one finale, for example, is the classic Riverdance, which was the highlight for me. Even if you think you’ve never heard the music from that number, I would wage a tentative bet that it’s buried somewhere deep in your psyche.

The Irish dancers, particularly the principals Maggie Darlington and Callum Spencer, are gorgeous dancers. Both principals joined the cast in 2011, and according to the program, have both been dancing since they were knee-high to a leprechaun.

I did worry a little bit about how incredibly hard this style of dancing must be on their lower legs until I read the whole program and saw that the North American tour has on staff a physical therapist, physiotherapist and a massage therapist. Then I was a little less concerned.

The first act gave a suggestion to the audience that we’d deviate from Irish dancing into other styles, which I was not expecting; the second act delves a little further into other styles, telling the story of Irish immigrants coming to the United States. This results is “Trading Taps,” an intercultural face-off between three Celtic dancers and two African-American tap dancers. This number worked because it felt like the dancers were having fun and interacting with the audience.

I was less keen on the flamenco numbers; in act one named “Firedance” and in act two, “Andalucia.” Though technically proficient, I didn’t feel the passion of these numbers, even though I was sitting towards the front of the theater, and so as a result of this I didn’t feel that the audience engaged with these numbers as much as others. Faring better were the Russian dance numbers; as I think the audience was drawn in by their sheer athleticism.

Another surprise for me is that there are live singers and dancers on stage; though the sound was definitely supplemented in the more intense numbers by pre-recorded material. I’m a bit of a sucker for Irish music, so it was a real pleasure to hear the fiddle, tin whistle and traditional bodhrán played live. The musicians were very talented, and there were segments that were simply composed of them playing, which was a real pleasure.

The production elements are simple and well executed. The proscenium is decorated with Celtic patterns, then there are projections on a large screen upstage. The projections are simple but evocative, sometimes abstract and other times depicting scenes including the Irish countryside and sea, which look like they are painted in watercolors.

The costumes too are straightforward, but with pretty flourishes, such as the underside of the dancers dresses in contrasting colors. The principal dancers costumes particularity are very pretty.

Overall, this version of “Riverdance” is more a walk down memory lane than anything new or groundbreaking. But those who are fans of the phenomenon will definitely be satisfied, particularly because we don’t know when the show will come back to Salt Lake City. And to newbies like me, the show was almost like a nostalgic, comforting trip to Ireland itself, and I loved that.

“Riverdance” plays at the Eccles Theatre, at 131 S. Main St., through Sunday. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. and two shows Sunday, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For tickets, which run $35 through $80, call 801-355-ARTS (2787) or click here.


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