I glanced at my watch; ten minutes until the first of eight performances of Riverdance at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts was to commence.
It seems a little unreal that I made it to my seat after starting my day at 4 am EST at Ottawa International Airport shivering from the icy winds and snow which had caked on my shoes. I recall wishing somehow the slow down at airports due to the holiday bustle and the recent TSA security response would not impact me and 4 pieces of checked luggage. Somehow my wish was granted because here I was, back in the SF Bay Area—a chilly, rainy evening never felt so warm!
Wait a second. What was I marveling about?
If there was a moment of awe in this auditorium, it rightfully belongs to the production and performers of Riverdance. Since 1995 when it first debuted in Dublin at The Point Theatre, the production has been seen by 21 million people in over 300 venues across 32 countries, spanning 4 continents. All this amounts to some serious air miles…about 563,000.
I was able to sneak in a final Tweet before the Riverdance Band’s music flowed and the Irish Dance Troupe filled the stage with lads and lassies all moving and stomping with incredible precision.
Whether you are a connoisseur of Irish stepdance or not, you can’t help but marvel at how effortlessly all the dancers make the complex and demanding dance look from afar. Very quickly, I found my feet tapping to the rhythm of the music…albeit not as quickly or with as much talent and skill as the dancers on stage.
The first act consists of 9 different performances ranging from traditional Irish stepdance numbers to songs beautifully led by Laura Yanez and a solo dance piece performed by Rocio Montoya.
Although I was in awe of the precision and skill, especially by leads Marty Dowds and Melissa Convery, involved in both dancing the Irish stepdance numbers, it was the vulnerable and sometimes sultry performances of “The Heart’s Cry” by the Riverdance Singers and the “Firedance” Flamenco solo that truly captivated both intellect and heart. The lines of the dance, accented by the beautiful dress and lighting on Rocio Montoya, created a visually stunning performance.
Intermission came abruptly which is a sign of a performance thoroughly enjoyed. Act 1 ended on a climax with the Irish Dance Troupe, Riverdance Singers and Drummers all on stage performing the number “Riverdance.”
As the lights came up, I could hear the murmurs of excitement by the audience around me. Act 1 successfully entertained by delivering topnotch talent and plenty of variety.
Whereas the numbers and transitions in Act 1 are regimented, Act 2 is more free form.
This was highlighted by a dance-off between Kelly Isaac and Sean Scott of The Riverdance Tappers and three of the Irish Dance Troupe (Marty Dowds, Patrick Barnett, Brian Mullane). It was an entertaining piece that enables each dancer to show-off their skills and the variety and styles of dance that are a rich part of Ireland’s culture. The piece was well received by the audience as there were multiple bursts of spontaneous cheers and claps. However, this component, along with the powerful and expressive singing by Michael Samuels, did not mesh with the momentum of the rest of the show.
I think this number and several others in Act 2 were staged to illustrate the struggle to find balance between tradition and the modern influences for change in Ireland. Riverdance successfully illustrates this struggle, although it is less able to provide a definitive solution or answer. These newer elements never quite weave effectively into the fabric of the rest of the production.
Beyond the stellar skills in dance, song and music which celebrate Irish culture, Riverdance attempts a loftier goal of exploring what a culture means to a group of people and their struggle to stay relevant and connect with the new while still not disenfranchising the rich past. In this latter goal, the production falls short.
The occasional recorded voice-overs are awkwardly timed and hokey. This paired with some of the images projected on the screen which seem dated (granted they were probably spectacular years ago) distracted from the authenticity of the rest of the production. From a set design perspective, one of the most effective components was the lighting which was used to bathe the stage in a warm glow or sudden flashes to signify conflict and change.
Based on audience reactions, there was a strong connection with the lead Irish dancers Marty Dowds and Melissa Convery. However, I thought even more of their time on stage could have been used to develop their characters instead of having it used for the multiple curtain calls at the end of the production. Yes, it is the Farewell Tour, but the best performances always leave the audience wanting more.
Based on the overall skill and performance of each number on its own, Riverdance is a 4.5 out of 5. As an overall production factoring in both continuity of theme, stage sets and transitions between performances, 3 out of 5.
‘Riverdance’ takes you on a visually spectacular journey of music, song and dance…proving once again, that the Irish really know how to throw a party, even one that is a farewell tour.
Riverdance delivers exactly what you’d expect: an impressive display of Irish dancing, music and singing delivered in a tight, if sometimes commercial, package.
There are several highs points. Riverdance is at it’s best when dancers storm the stage, tapping ferociously, in sync, hopping energetically to a crescendo of celtic music.
However, there are at least two or three too many curtain calls. Yes, farewell! It’s been great! Also, the exaggerated theatrical wave is a little too much for me. The voice from above (narrating poetry) detracts somewhat from the live ambiance and excitement, as do the dated Vegas backdrop graphics. Look, a field! Flames!
The show could be at least 30 minutes shorter, and be the better for it. I’d start by cutting the length of the extended instrumental numbers. They add Irish charm, and no doubt the talent is impressive, but why do we need so much violin for example?
Nevertheless, Riverdance proves why it has become a global juggernaut – it’s hard not to be amazed by the footwork and timing. Thanks again to Broadway San Jose, we can enjoy some tier one entertainment here in the South Bay.