BWW Reviews: RIVERDANCE FAREWELL TOUR Brings Irish Culture to California

What is it about Ireland that we Americans love so much? Is it the rich, green land? Is it the unique culture? The music? And for young, unmarried women, is it the handsome accent of a dreamy, far off man? Or maybe, it is the dance. Whatever it is, it has clearly rubbed off on Riverdance, the phenomenon Irish dance show that has toured all over the world. 

A cornucopia of all things Irish culture, Riverdance highlights the music, poetry, dance and history of the Irish people. In its first act, dances represent the land, origins and survival of Ireland, while in its second act, the dances follow the Irish people as they move to America because of famine and struggle to hold on to tradition while looking to the future. 

The popular show still draws audiences after many years and revisions. Wednesday night, the North American Farewell Tour visited Broadway in Fresno, California. The tour will make stops in both Northern and Southern California in the coming months, and it may be California's last chance to see the original that spawned so many other successful dance shows - none so successful as Riverdance. Can there ever be a real end to such a well known, beloved show? It seems to keep coming back, and it will certainly live on in the shows it inspired and in the hearts it moved. And for good reason, too.

While the traveling version of Riverdance is a pared down version with fewer dances and more minimal sets than the original - what you would expect for a show that has to adapt to stages of differing sizes - it still garners excitement from all who attend. The sets consist of two side platforms for the musicians to sit on and steps leading up to a screen, onto which various images are projected to set the scene. Dramatic lighting and fog machines add to the ambiance. 

One of the unique aspects of Riverdance that makes it so pleasant is its live band. Fiddler Pat Mangan often moves about the stage as if he wishes to join the dancers. He also takes part in a few lively battles of the instruments. Even more impressive, he and the other band members play the difficult Celtic music from memory. A few of the instruments are unique to Irish culture - the uilleann pipe, low whistle and bodhran solos give extra pleasure to the onlooker and give audiences a glimpse of yet another unfamiliar piece of Ireland. 

The singing brings equal pleasure. Baritone soloist Michael E. Wood pulls off the song "Heal Their Hearts - Freedom," but he's clearly a better dancer than singer. Wood lacks conviction in song, but delivers with full energy in a number following his solo. In one of the most memorable moments of the show, Wood and another dancer confront Irish tap dancers with their own American tap dancing. A saxophone also battles a fiddle musically in "Trading Taps," giving completion to the already hilarious number. 

A female soloist sings in several numbers. Her voice, crisp and clear, hypnotizes the audience with its heavenly sound. Unfortunately, and rather unjustly, the program does not give her name, at least not as a featured singer. Unlike most of the rest of the cast, she does not dance. With a voice like hers, one much better than the one on the Riverdance recording, she deserves more than a quick bow from the back of the stage - a bow shared with one male singer who has no solos and a bow that audiences may not notice since the singers are behind two rows of dancers.

The dancers sing, too, so perfectly, in fact, that one wonders if they are merely lip syncing to a pre-recorded track. Most of the singing takes place during the slower, more peaceful moments of the show. Riverdance delivers a lot of ups and downs, taking audiences on a musical roller coaster as it switches back and forth between calm and upbeat music. With the sometimes abrupt endings to songs, the constant changes can sometimes be annoying. Riverdance lacks a certain flow that other shows might have, especially since it takes on more of a concert feeling than anything else. Even the applause may get in the way as it interrupts the flow of the show. 

But forget about the music and the flow of the show. You see Riverdance for the dancing, right? The upper body control. The unique form of tap dancing. The clogging. The step dancing. And Riverdance never disappoints where dancing is concerned. You might describe Riverdance as the Irish version of the Radio City Rockettes. 

Principal dancer Craig Ashurst flies across the stage effortlessly, and his feet move faster than lightning. From his dramatic entrance onward, Ashurst owns the stage. As does the flamenco soloist, MaRita Martinez-Rey. As a Spanish dance, the Flamenco seems somewhat out of place. Aside from the more fitting American tap dance number, the Flamenco is the only obviously non-Irish dance style in the show. While the music remains Irish, and Flamenco dance mixes well with Irish dance, the random use of the Spanish culture does not fit. But, if the dance has to be included, be glad that Martinez-Rey is the one dancing it. She dances with passion and sensuality like the fire her dances represent. 

The only real disappointment of Riverdance comes with the length of the dance numbers. While some are the perfect length, others seem far too short and have abrupt endings. At the end of the performance, audiences reluctantly leave a fantastical world that has ended far too soon. As the lyrics of two of the songs in Riverdance read, the dance is "living to nourish you, cherish you. [It is] pulsing the blood in your veins," and it "[carries us] over the ocean in dance and song."

Riverdance will be in California on the following dates:

Fresno - Saroyan Theatre - Nov 2-3

San Bernardino - California Theatre - Nov. 4-6

Sacramento -  Community Center Theatre - Nov 7-9

Santa Ynez - Chumash Casino - Nov. 10

Modesto - Gallo Center for the Arts Nov 11-13

Los Angeles - Pantages Theatre - Nov. 15-20

Cupertino - Flint Center - Nov. 21-22

Redding - Redding Convention Center - Nov. 223

Palm Desert - McCallum Theatre - Nov. 25-27

Santa Rosa - Wells Fargo Center for the Arts - Nov 29-30

San Diego - Civic Center - Dec 2-4

Visit for more information.

Photo Credit: Jack Hartin


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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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