Cadillac Palace Theatre
At Cadillac Palace Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago –By unofficial count, the Cadillac Palace Theatre is hosting the 10th North American farewell tour of “Riverdance,” in town for a brief one week run. The thought that we may never see this show locally after Sunday is painful indeed, except that if there have been so many farewell tours since its first in 2011-2012 2012 is it too much to anticipate that Chicagoland audiences may not be saying “Goodbye” but “See you later?”
As we all should know, “Riverdance” is a celebration of traditional Irish song and dance. The concept was born as a seven minute performance in 1994 and became an instant sensation that won the hearts of audiences throughout the world. As ever, the touring production presents a large ensemble of musicians, dancers, and singers performing music that evokes the feeling of a mythic Ireland. The heart of the show is dance, with the company performing in their famous style–largely with arms either rigidly at the side of the body or hands on hips. Thus, virtually all the dancing comes from the waist down. The dancer’s expression is impassive, but the physical style is eloquent in the dazzling footwork and skipping manner that carries the dancers across the stage seemingly floating above ground. Performed by a massed ensemble with metal taps on their shoes, it’s a thrilling and unique mesh of movement and sound.
The 2020 tour largely follows the original format. There are ensemble dancing pieces, as well as solos and duets.. There is much instrumental music by a small corps of brilliant musicians working their magic on familiar instruments (saxophone, violin, drums) and Irish folk instruments (Uilleann pipes and low whistle). The musicians perform solo and in combination with the dancers. There is no storyline or dialogue and only a few words of plummy recorded spoken verse scattered throughout the evening.
While the show is clearly devoted to its Irish heritage, the program does offer some musical diversity. There is a flamenco dancer tempestuously doing her Spanish thing. A pair of young African American tap dancers engage in a friendly cutting contest with three Irish tappers from the company. There is a wow of a Russian folk dance troupe, three men and three women who knocked the audience out with their high spirited, athletic, precision choreography. The Russians also provided a striking contrast between their full body style and the Irish emphasis on the dexterity of their legs and feet in motion.
It’s primarily a dancing show but the level of instrumental music is top notch. Unfortunately, the playbill does not consistently identify soloists (either dancers or musicians) but the on stage Riverdance band is listed as Mark Alfred (percussion), Haley Richardson (fiddle), Emma Frampton (saxophone), and Tara Howley (Uillean pipes, whistles, and concertina). In addition to accompanying the singers and dancers, the musicians are terrific soloists. Frampton’s soprano saxophone interludes give us traditional Irish melodies as well as touches of American folk music and swinging jazz, all delivered with mind blowing techn1que. There are singing solos by a petite young blonde singer with a crystal clear soprano voice, alas unidentified. But the program does credit Rocio Montoya as a hot blooded flamenco dancer.
The program lists three male and three female principal dancers, but doesn’t identify individuals with their appearances. One pair dominated the production with their speed and rhythm and technique (and even smiled a lot) and the couple are drawn from the principals pool of Will Bryant, Maggie Darlington, Anna Mai Fitzpatrick, Patrick O’Mahoney, Jason O’Neill, and Gianna Petracic. Whoever they were, they were stunning. A salute also goes to black tap dancers Lamont Brown and Tyler Knowlin, the duo who hoofed to a joyous draw with the three lithe Irishmen.
The program will be familiar to veteran “Riverdance” patrons but the physical production is new, exhibiting some striking projections and lighting effects. This staging is certainly flashier than previous shows and perhaps the producers decided the new tour might profit from a fresh look. The landscape projections and especially the giant domes of a Russian Orthodox cathedral rising in the background are certainly eye catching. Whether all the visual sizzle and flash enhances the viewing experience or is an occasional distraction resides in the eye of the beholder. But the production never takes its eye of the target, which is the virtuoso dancing and singing and instrumental performances.
The opening night audience included a surprising number of children, some of them very young, but all of them, at least those around me, very well mannered. They apparently were as entertained by the show as adults. But “Riverdance” has always been an accessible audience experience. Even children can recognize and enjoy all the artistic talent on display, no matter what the age of the spectators or how little they may personally connect with Irish tradition.
Will this finally be the last look we get at “Riverdance?” The show is inimitable in its style and performing requirements. It takes rigorous training to become an accomplished dancer in the classic Irish tradition. So “Riverdance” will never be a candidate for revival by a local musical theater devoted to hit Broadway musicals that adhere to American theatrical conventions. The artistic demands are too specific and the show must require a considerable budget to stay afloat. But the number of young people in the audience suggests that there may be an ongoing audience for an event this special. Or maybe that is wishful thinking. One lives in hope.
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“Riverdance” runs through February 9 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $90. Call (800) 775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.