Riverdance at 20 is as good as you remember – only better

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The "Riverdance" ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Amanda-Rachel Garcia/Prana Marketing)

The “Riverdance” ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Amanda-Rachel Garcia/Prana Marketing)

How it’s New York: The show had its U.S. debut at Radio City Music Hall in 1996. Current musical director and fiddler Pat Mangan is a Brooklyn boy. Tapper Christopher Broughton has some Broadway credits to his name.
How it’s Irish: Riverdance. You can’t get more Irish than that, can you?

The pre-recorded show greeting came first in Irish, then in English: You are welcomed to this 20th anniversary production of “Riverdance.”

Two questions were running through my head as I was setting into my seat, way up in the third tier at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark:

“Is it going to be as good as I remember?”

and

“How on earth has it been 20 years already?”

I’m afraid I really can’t answer the second question. But to the first question, I say: Yes. This incarnation of “Riverdance” was every bit as good as the original – and then some.

“Riverdance” and I, you see, go WAY back. There was a time during my childhood when it seemed like we watched one of the “Riverdance” videos every other night: either the 1995 debut show in Dublin, starring Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, or the 1996 residency at Radio City Music Hall, by which time Colin Dunne had partnered with Butler.

(I freely admit that “Lord of the Dance,” Flatley’s first post-“Riverdance” outing, just didn’t do anything for me. After the sublime grace and energy of “Riverdance,” “Lord of the Dance” felt just a little too corny and flashy.)

But what is it about “Riverdance” that makes it so enduring, two decades from its start as a short dance segment on the

Make no mistake: “Riverdance” is a physically demanding show, and the athleticism required of the dancers is astounding. To put it another way, all of the dancers – Irish, American, Spanish and Russian – are the terpsichorean equivalent of Olympic athletes.

Eurovision Song Contest?

Is it watching the dancers’ feet hammer out the rhythm of the dances with machine-gun precision?

Is it Bill Whelan’s haunting and rousing score, played to perfection on whistles, Uilleann pipes and fiddle? Is it the interplay among the different dance traditions from all over the world?

We could argue that until we’re blue in the face, but my opinion is that “Riverdance” needs all of those elements, in just the right proportions, to create a great unified whole.

For the touring production, there are six principal Irish dancers, and each performance’s lead male and female roles are rotated (rather wisely, considering the physical demands of the show) among them. The three listed male leads are Stephen Brennan, James Greenan and Jason O’Neill. The three female leads are Maggie Darlington, Lauren Smyth and Chloey Turner.

Behind the leads are the 18 ensemble dancers: 10 women and eight men. Most hail from Ireland, the program notes, but a number of them also come from the UK, the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Several members of the Irish troupe also double, and quite capably, too, as the chorus of singers, filling the role once held by Anuna.

Rounding out the cast are the six-member Russian dance ensemble, tappers Christopher Broughton and Michael Everett and flamenco dancer Marita Martinez-Rey.

Most of the Irish dances in the show still use the original choreography. I was mentally saying,

“All right, here’s where they fan out into the V formation”

during “Reel Around the Sun.” The favorites are all still here: “The Countess Cathleen/Women of Ireland,” “American Wake,” the whirling and acrobatics of “The Russian Dervish” and the fiery grace and swirling skirts of “Fire Dance” and “Andalucia.”

“Trading Taps” – always an audience favorite – featured some formidable footwork from Everett and Broughton in a friendly, high-energy “anything you can do I can do better” duel with the three men from the Irish ensemble. The number has been expanded a bit over the years, with some funk and disco overtones – and more opportunities for the audience to hoot and holler their appreciation.

There was a new number added for the anniversary, an energetic hard-shoe number for the female performers called “Anna Livia.” The title refers to Anna Livia Plurabelle, the wife in James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” who is also the spirit of Dublin’s River Liffey. It’s a cappella: the only accompaniment the women had as they thundered their way through the intricate footwork was some jazzy drumming and the frenetic whispers of the narration: “River City/River Liffey/Anna Livia.”

Make no mistake: “Riverdance” is a physically demanding show, and the athleticism required of the dancers is astounding. To put it another way, all of the dancers – Irish, American, Spanish and Russian – are the terpsichorean equivalent of Olympic athletes. And I was not at all surprised to see that the tour company includes a medical officer /physiotherapist and a massage therapist.

The original “Riverdance” shows in the 1990s had a full orchestra, with traditional Irish instruments plus guitars, bass, synthesizers and a large battery of percussion.

For this show, the orchestra has been scaled down to a quartet (plus some pre-recorded guitar, bass and synth tracks) with Pat Mangan on the fiddle, Mark Alfred on drums and percussion, Matt Bashford on the Uilleann pipes and the whistles, and Ken Edge (a returning veteran from past “Riverdance” productions) on soprano saxophone. All four of them were pretty formidable, frequently giving traditional melodies a contemporary twist; I rather liked the jazz-rock feel they gave to “Harvest” in the first act.

As a winner of multiple fiddle competitions in the U.S. and Ireland – and as a Brooklyn boy – Mangan is certainly a worthy successor to the legendary Eileen Ivers, playing with plenty of energy and brio. One could get the sense that he was almost itching to put on a pair of dancing shoes himself.

I remember reading a quote somewhere saying that once upon a time, Irish dancers didn’t need an accompanying drummer because the dancers’ shoes were the percussion. Now that is certainly subject to debate – at the very least, it is after watching Alfred. He did a wicked bodhran solo in the second act, and there were moments when he was playing hard enough to shake the scenery behind him.

It felt like all too soon, the lights were coming up and it was time to go. But this production of “Riverdance” felt like both an old friend come back to visit and a new friend you’re meeting for the first time.

Next stop, 30th anniversary?

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