Also see Scott's review of Titanic
One could say that Riverdance started a phenomenon that has changed the landscape of theater. Traditionally, shows (musicals or straight plays) could generally be categorized as either comedies or dramas. Riverdance was the first popular show to take an artistic skill and present it in a theatrical context with great success. Since then, the likes of Blast (drum and bugle corp), Stomp (percussion and dance), TapDogs (tap), and Cirque Dreams (circus) have followed suit, and audiences across America are now accustomed to seeing them as part of annual touring seasons or extras. In its farewell North American tour, as currently seen at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Riverdance remains an enthralling and crowd-pleasing spectacle and again shows how to put together such a show.
Riverdance presents various types of dance and music within themes of nature (fire, water, wind, etc), as well as a brief "dances around the world" portion. Front and center are Irish skills and elements, with Irish step dancing and music being the focal point. With mostly motionless upper bodies contrasted against legs in constant, graceful movement, the Irish dancing, especially the group numbers, is visually stunning. And audience members are equally exposed to new and interesting sounds by the live band and singers that also make Riverdance a unique experience. However, the show isn't all Irish. Other dances include flamenco (featuring the fiery Rocio Montoya), a standout Russian folk ballet piece, and contemporary tap, presented as a contest between American urban-style tappers Jason E. Bernard and Kelly Isaac versus three of the Irish step dancers. The large dance company is led by the first-rate principal dancers Marty Dowds and Caterina Coyne. They each display marvelous dance skills and stage presence, as well the necessary chemistry together.
The catchy, melodic and perfectly themed songs by Bill Whelan include rockin' modern showcases for the band, traditional sounding Irish folk songs, beautifully haunting choral numbers for a small choir (led by sololist Laura Yanez), and a moving spiritual (powerfully delivered by Michael Samuels). Each band member gets sufficient chance to shine. It isn't often that the members of a show's band are mentioned by name in a review, but Musical Director Cathal Synnott (keyboards), Pat Mangan (fiddle), Matt Bashford (pipes/whistles), Mark Alfred (percussion), and Daniel Dorrance (sax) are just too good and too integral a part of the show to leave out.
Director John McClogan deserves significant praise for putting together an extremely solid and well-paced show that contains just enough variety in dance and song to keep audiences engaged, while wisely focusing on the Irish step dancing that audiences love. The choreography (by a number of individuals including Michael Flatley) is vibrant and aesthetically pleasing.
The design elements of the show do a lot to enhance the theatricality of the piece as well. Robert Ballagh provides a set with several panels with earth-inspired patterns surrounding a video projection screen that displays various images suggesting the themes of each number. The dramatic lighting by Rupert Murray and beautiful costumes by Joan Bergin both use a lovely color palette to complement each other.
Riverdance was groundbreaking when it premiered, and continues to delight audiences with its energy, variety, and excellent presentation of talent and creativity. The show played at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 17, 2009. For more information on the tour, visit www.riverdance.com.