Riverdance Review Merriam Theater – The Irish Spectacle of Dance Will Enthrall You
Riverdance is an enthralling spectacle of sight and sound, not to be missed. This is the final U.S. tour of the iconic stage show. Their press kit concisely summarizes its appeal:
What began as a seven-minute dance segment on the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest (televised to over 300 million people throughout Europe) and then quickly turned into a full-scale production has become much more than an international theatrical success. "I believe RIVERDANCE has been basically a pathfinder,” said Niall O’Dowd, founder of Irish America Magazine and the Irish Voice newspaper. Along with the peace process in Northern Ireland and the economic miracle in Ireland proper, the show “has been a hugely important part of a transformation of the image of Ireland in the last 20 years."
In a flash, RIVERDANCE became Ireland’s greatest ambassador and the thirst began.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Riverdance is that it is not simply a magnificent presentation of Irish dancers at world-class levels. When we were doing the research prior to the show, we learned that the show actually has a narrative as well. It seeks to tell the entire history of Celtic Ireland.
Prior to attending, we’d encourage you to visit the official Riverdance site, where there is a slideshow and explanation of each scene that you will see. While you can certainly enjoy the performance without the various back stories, we found it to be enormously helpful and gave us a deeper appreciation for the majesty of the performances on stage.
Act One begins with prehistory, the gradual arrival of the Celts during the several centuries before Christ, the seasonal and natural gods worshipped by Celtic society, the heroes, myths, and legends of pagan Celtic society and civilization, and medieval history.
Act Two focuses on the Irish diaspora that began in the mid-19th century, when many Irish fled their homeland for new lives in America, Canada, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. It portrays how the Irish blended their own unique cultural identity, with the other cultures they encountered in the New World - – blacks, Greeks, and Latinos, specifically.
Riverdance then culminates with a symbolic return to Ireland, where the Irish acknowledge how their odyssey has transformed them, artistically, socially, and spiritually, and made them into stronger, more dynamic souls, with unique and distinctive experiences that have enriched them beyond measures. In the grand finale, there is a stunning interpretation of how these experiences have now been completely harmonized and blended into their lives and their destinies, both individually and collectively.
The special effects were truly spellbinding.
A screen behind the dancers reflected the theme of the scene. The first was a rich navy blue, reflecting the eponymous river, the female water deity so powerful in Celtic myth and legend. (The famous “Lady of the Lake” in the Arthurian legend, entirely Celtic in origin, is another manifestation of this water spirit). Ethereal mists waft across the stage at selected times, making one feel that one had been somehow magically transported to the Emerald Isle.)
Another was of rolling hills with a round tower. These towers, scattered all over Ireland, were used for defense against Viking marauders and as depositories for precious gold, artifacts, and ornate manuscripts lovingly copied by the occupants of Irish monasteries.
Here were some of our favorite scenes:
Reel Around The Sun
The ancient Celts believed that gods existed everywhere – with the sun god being the most powerful. He was the life-bringer, the one whose annual return ensured that the crops would grow and that prosperity could be assured. The screen reflected a gorgeous sun, a vibrant yellow-orange color, and one can understand the hold it had on the ancient Celtic imagination. The dancers form a circle – reflecting not only its shape, but what they (of course) believed was the sun’s annual circle around the earth (as opposed to vice versa, which we know due to modern science).
The sun’s daily partner, the full moon, also appeared, in such a luminescent form, that it was truly breathtaking in its beauty, with every feature crystal-clear.
The Countess Cathleen
Based on a medieval legend about a noble countess who battles a pair of the devil’s minion, this was among the most beautiful dances of the evening. The countess encounters two men clad in the hellish colors of red and black.
Caoineadh Chú Chulainn
A piper laments the death of Chú Chulainn, the greatest hero of Irish mythology. (It was once believed by the Irish monks who wrote down Ireland’s history, that he was a genuine historical figure, ironically.) Nowadays, although we know that he is fictional, he is the hero of “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, Ireland’s national epic saga. The stories of Chú Chulainn and his battle against Queen Maeve were told and retold by seanachies (Irish storytellers) for centuries, before their recording by monks after Christianization. And the piper’s plaintive playing evokes the memory of a figure who continues to compel the Celtic world, as he has for over two millennia.
The flamenco dancer who paid homage to the elemental power of fire – a power deeply respected by the ancient Celts – takes place against a blazing inferno, and was one of the most powerful scenes of the show.
Slip into Spring – The Harvest
The ancient Celts based their gods and religious ceremonies around the four seasons, and in this case, the aforementioned background with the green fields and round-tower was used. As the music played, the colors gradually and beautifully shifted on the background, signifying the annual cycle of the seasons, and conveying these ancient beliefs in a striking way.
The first act culminates in Riverdance, as a large group of dancers pay tribute to the power of the river, the source of all life, and is a ringing finale, just before intermission.
Act Two focuses on the mid-19th century and beyond. By far the most incredible performance was:
Harbour of the New World – Trading Taps
It was a tap-dance battle between two black dancers and several male troupe members, and they battled for over 10 minutes, each consistently outdoing the other, in a spellbinding dancing duel. Just when you thought that they had to be too tired to continue, they kept upping their respective games, to a rousing approval by the audience. It featured incredible stamina, skill, and athleticism.
Slow Air and Tunes
The incredible expertise and the talent of the fiddler and the bodhran player – as they varied from tempo to tempo – exhibited the wide range of the Irish experience, merely added to the magical experience of the entire evening.
The entire company appeared on stage, for the grand finale. It was one of the most spectacular finales we’ve ever seen, in a lifetime of attending stage shows. The exuberance, the ebullience, and the excitement of the dancers exploded into the Merriam, enveloping the crowd along with them. The crowd jumped to its collective feet and began clapping along with the dancers, and one was swept away by the expression of sheer joy and the celebration of Irish culture.
Alana Mallon and James Greenan - The Two Principal Dancers
Of course, all of this was made possible by the two principal dancers on Friday, May 11, the night we reviewed the performance. James Greenan and Alana Mallon were the two principals, and each gave a breathtaking performance. The dancing is so intricate – but at the same time, they were tremendous actors, expressing in dance the entire course of Irish history, in a way that would have seemed unthinkable, if it weren’t for the unmistakable fact that you were seeing it take place in front of you.
Overall, it was a mesmerizing, spellbinding show, and its status as a cultural phenomenon is well-deserved. We give it our highest recommendation.
Post-Performance Interview with Riverdance Principal Dancer Alana Mallon
A native of Glasgow, Scotland, in her 12th year with Riverdance - and she’s been dancing since the age of three: “so I don’t know any different, really! It’s all I know!”
“How does your body hold up, with this much rigor, night after night after night?”
"We have eight shows a week. But we have a massage therapist on tour, and a physical therapist, who’s here with us. And we do a lot of stretching and cardio before the show, to keep us fit. Plus, the show keeps us fit as well!"
When asked how many cities in which she had performed, she said, “Oh, it’s hard to tell! We’ve been everywhere, all over Europe and Asia… I was one of the dancers on the Great Wall of China…it was amazing…”
On life on the road: “It’s hard. This tour is a lot more demanding; we’re travelling every few days. We’re doing a lot of split weeks… you know, we’ll do two or three cities a week, and stuff… So it’s quite hard, to tell where you are, sometimes… you’re just getting on a bus, and travelling a lot… But - this weekend, we’re here for the whole weekend, so it’s good - we get to unpack, and relax..”
When asked if this was her first trip to Philadelphia: “No, I’ve been here a couple of times, I love it. It’s one of my favorite places, actually…”
On how long it takes to master it: “I think Irish dancing is very unique… it takes a while, but we do get fit, really fit. It’s a whole lifetime – you know it’s not something you can take a few classes in, and then become an expert. It does take a long, long time.”
When asked what her favorite number was: “Probably the Riverdance number, the one before the end… the music belts up and it’s beautiful, and all the dancers come on, and the music belts… that’s my favorite one… I think it’s a very well-thought-out show, very well put together.”
(When asked where she and the tour went from here, she laughed, and replied, “Actually, I don’t know! We just got our new schedule!”)
Thanks to Alana for her time!
If You Go - Remember, This Is The Final Tour In the U.S.!!!
Its popularity is simply astounding. To return to the press kit:
Composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, to date, RIVERDANCE has played over 10,000 performances, been seen live by more than 22 million people in over 350 venues throughout 40 countries across 4 continents. They have traveled well over 600,000 miles (or to the moon and back!), played to a worldwide television audience of 2 billion; sold over 3 million copies of the Grammy Award-winning CD (certified Platinum in the US) and over 10 million videos making it one of the best-selling entertainment videos in the world! RIVERDANCE had its world premiere at the Point Theatre, Dublin, in February 1995, where it opened to unanimous critical acclaim.
Tickets for RIVERDANCE are on sale now and range from $55 to $100. Tickets can be purchased by calling 215-731-3333, online at kimmelcenter.org/broadway, at the Kimmel Center box office, Broad & Spruce Sts. (open daily 10 am to 6 pm) or at the Merriam Theater box office, 250 S. Broad St. (open during performances only). Groups of 10 or more will receive discounts for select performances by calling 215-790-5883. Performances include: Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; Sunday evening at 6:30 pm; and matinees Saturday at 2:00 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm.