Some members of the company weren’t even born when lines of dancers with arms at their sides first performed at a Eurovision competition in 1994. I’d say the rest was history but I don’t think anyone anticipated they’d launch a show that would be touring constantly for the next two decades. Bill Whelan composed the music for that first show with choreography by Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, among others.
There are fewer artists onstage than in the original, which means dancers double as singers and some of the music is recorded but the adaptation is ingenious and the heart of this amazing show is still beating strongly.
Most of the songs have not changed since the original production beginning with a foggy stage and a familiar haunting flute solo performed by Matt Bashford, accompanied by Mark Alfred in his tricked out percussion pit.
Most of the percussion comes from the feet of 20 dancers making patterns around the stage for “Reel Around the Sun” in green velvet dresses and vests by Costume Designer Joan Bergen.
Then the stars take the stage for the first of many impressive solos. Maggie Darlington and Jason O’Neill led this production, while Ciara Sexton, Chloey Turner, Stephen Brennan, and James Greenan lead on alternate nights. One thing that has not changed is the caliber of dancer. Most have won multiple championships before joining the show and they all leap impossibly high and tap impossibly fast. Darlington struts her stuff in “The Countess Cathleen” featuring a dance off between men and women. Another familiar highlight is “Thunderstorm” featuring the male dancers of the company in an acapella tour de force.
The musicians get to strut their stuff often as well. Matt Bashford returned on Uilleann Pipes for “Shivna” and fiddler Pat Mangan and tenor saxophonists Ken Edge trade solos on ‘Slip into Spring – The Harvest.”
The singers shine on “The Heart’s Cry” and “Heal their Hearts – Freedom,” a touching song about immigrants by baritone Michael Everett.
One reason Riverdance has been so successful is that it branches out into many other forms of percussive dancing, beginning with a fiery flamenco “Firedance” by Marita Martinez-Rey. Russian Cossack dancers take the stage for “The Russian Dervish” which mostly involves flinging ones legs over ones heads and spinning as fast as humanly possible. Finally, American tap dancers Michael Everett and Ty Knowlin battle it out with Irish step dancers in “Trading Taps,” showing the evolution of both forms.
There are a couple of new additions to the show as well from over the years. In “American Wake” they showcase other aspects of Irish dance with a square dance number and partner dancing with the women in long skirts like they’re all hanging around a village having a party. In “Anna Livia” the female lead and the other women get to strut their stuff in a show filled with a lot of drum battles and numbers for the guys.
The production values have increased over the years as well on a set by Robert Ballagh that echoes the original stone columns and lighting by John Comiskey that takes the iconic choreographed circles of light and one-ups them with multiple flashing thunder and lights. Director John McColgan has struck a great balance in preserving tradition and adding his own flare to the updated production.
The magic of Riverdance lies beyond history or culture. It’s just a really good show with a little something for everybody, from fabulous musicians and impressive dancers to inspiring singers and an addictive display of sound and light. Though, of course, Ireland and the Irish immigrant experience weaves through every song, a theme that is as relevant as ever. The 20th Anniversary show is a worthy addition with new young dancers tackling the classic rhythms. I have a suspicion we’ll be sitting down to the 50th anniversary in another few decades.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Riverdance The 20th Anniversary World Tour plays through June 26, 2016 at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets, call the box office at 1-877-wolftrap, or purchase them online.