Since it premiered in February 1995 in Dublin, "Riverdance" has become an international sensation. With more than 9,000 performances in 32 countries, it has delighted more than 19 million people. Now, it has come to the Lied Center, and opening night did not disappoint.
A packed house saw firsthand what has made the show famous: traditional Irish step-dancing executed with stunning precision. The dance troupe tapped, clapped and stomped its way through one intricate number after another, moving with exceptional grace. The sheer energy pouring off the stage lit up the Lied Center and electrified the crowd.
Lead dancer Marty Dowds was phenomenal. He alternated between gliding across the stage and stepping so furiously, so quickly, he was mesmerizing. Each of his dance solos raised the intensity of the performance. Melissa Convery was a perfect partner for him, moving so lithely on her own, only to match him step for step when they danced together.
But there's so much more to "Riverdance" than the dancing. The show is a retelling of Irish mythic history. The first act is a paean to Celtic heroes and the power of the earth and sun. An a cappella dance by the men describes the power of a thunderstorm and the refusal of the people to yield to it; a flamenco dance shows the warmth and passion of the sun and fire; and a dance by the women celebrates femininity.
The second act features an interpretation of Irish immigration to the New World. The action reveres the culture of the homeland and its merging with that of the new land encountered. This last is told most effectively by the number "Trading Taps" - a duel between American tap dancers and traditional Irish step-dancers that was a real crowd-pleaser.
Bill Whelan's music is exceptional. Each number begins softly and builds to a majestic climax. While the show is known for its dancing, there is a large amount of vocal music, and each song hits just the right note. The harmonies in "The Heart's Cry" are rich and complex. Soloist Hayley Griffiths has a haunting, clear soprano voice that was especially fine in the titular song, which concludes the first act. Mark Fennell's booming baritone rendered a gripping rendition of "Heal Their Hearts - Freedom."
Even the band is featured in several numbers rather than being relegated solely to the role of accompanist. Pat Mangan's fiddle solos were joyful, exuberant pieces that got the audience clapping along. Declan Masterson, who played three instruments, was stunning. After enchanting the audience with a plaintive lament played on uilleann pipes and following that up with exquisite guitar work on "Firedance," he drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd by slipping into the Kansas University fight song on low pipes during a song about spring.
"Riverdance" is much more than Irish step-dancing; it is an engrossing musical experience that far exceeds its already high reputation.