You can measure the success of the Irish dance show "Riverdance," which opens on Broadway tonight, by how easy it is to laugh at and how many imitations it has spawned.
Virtually every comedian from John Leguizamo to Jackie Mason has a "Riverdance" parody. All any standup comic has to do is straighten his back, stiffen his legs and press his arms into his sides - and the audience will instantly recognize the reference.
And "Riverdance" clones are everywhere. The biggest, "Lord of the Dance," almost rivaled the original's success. The latest, "Dancing on Dangerous Ground," is packing them in at Radio City.
Usually, when a show is this well established, it's the result of a brilliantly orchestrated strategy. With half a billion dollars taken in at the box office on four continents, and with 6.5 million videos and 2 million CDs sold, you might think that "Riverdance" was a well-planned bid for world domination.
In fact, it all happened by accident. A collision of elements that should have resulted in a cultural car wreck instead created an indestructible entertainment juggernaut.
One element of "Riverdance," naturally, was traditional Irish step-dancing. But six years ago, in the show's earliest days, this was an exercise so staid and prim that any young Irish person asked to name the opposite of sex might well have said "step dancing."
The next part of the mix was even less promising. Moya Doherty, a young TV producer, was given the job of organizing the 1994 "Eurovision Song Contest" in Dublin. This is an event from TV hell in which every country in Europe submits a song, and every nation votes for the one it likes best - or against the song from the country it hates most.
Doherty's biggest job was to fill a 7-minute gap between the songs and the voting. Since the viewers speak many different languages, she thought of a dance act. Doherty looked up two Irish-American step-dancers, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, who had taken the traditional forms and injected a touch of American show-business sex appeal.
The third element was composer Bill Whelan, who had the know-how to reinvent Irish dance music for the stage.
All these ingredients might have been a recipe for confusion and kitsch. Instead, the act was an explosive contrast to its bland surroundings. A week later, no one could remember who had won the song contest, but everyone was still talking about the dance act.
Doherty and husband John McColgan, also a TV producer, then decided to expand the act into a full-length stage show, with Flatley and Butler supplemented by a large company of Irish, Spanish, Russian and American dancers. But despite their success at the song contest, this was still a risky proposition. Turning a 7–minute dance piece into a two-hour show isn't easy.
But they made it all happen, and the first run, in Dublin in February 1995, was a huge success. The video topped the British charts even before the show opened in London the following October.
Then everything seemed to fall apart. Flatley, the star and choreographer, parted company with Doherty and McColgan in a row over money and control. Without him, it seemed, "Riverdance" would be like "Titanic" without Leonardo DiCaprio.
Instead, Flatley's departure turned out to be the real beginning of the "Riverdance" dynasty. Not only did the show prove to be bigger than its star, but without its most recognizable name, it could be cloned into three separate touring companies.
This week, with the main company opening a radically reworked show on Broadway, the standard "Riverdance" is also playing in Germany and in Peoria. The leading dancers aren't well-known and don't have to be; the show itself is the main attraction.
And so a happy accident has become a global enterprise. A strange collision of cultural influences has become practically a new art form. And so far, "Riverdance" has stayed light enough on its feet to keep moving on to new audiences.
The more some things change, the more they remain the same. Ireland's "Riverdance on Broadway," which opened at the Gershwin Theatre last night in neat time for St. Patrick's Day, is not only said to be, but probably is, very different from the dear old "Riverdance" we loved, and some of us loved, at Radio City Music Hall.
But curiously enough, it doesn't look it. Everything has been given a new coat of paint, so to speak: the cast is changed, and the show has been rejigged. But it all looks and sounds much the same.
Probably it was meant to. Why fiddle around with success, why fix the stolidly unbroken?
If you've seen "Riverdance" earlier, you'll know what to expect: a Celtic-looking rock-like setting (actually it seems more Druidically Stonehenge than anything else) with highly colored projections to vary the look, a load of Irish music and a lot of Irish dancing.
The Irish dancing is still varied by comparisons with the dance forms -- American tap dance and Spanish flamenco -- with which its basic tapping has much in common. In addition, there are still bits of theatricalized Russian folk dance thrown in for good measure.
It's a very slick show -- if anything, it has gotten slicker with time and success. The music and lyrics by Bill Whelan are less than memorable but modestly agreeable and strike an appropriately Irish note.
Yet the huge popular success of the piece surely derives from Moya Doherty's canny producing – she seems to have put all pieces together with breathtaking efficiency -- and John McColgan's swift, deft staging, which works like a computer but still manages to pervade a perhaps phony but not unpleasant impression of homespun charm.
Though there's no story, there are poems beautifully enunciated by the recorded voice of Liam Neeson. Some songs are sung by a new Irish tenor with a high range, Brian Kennedy. Leading a new and folksy African contingent is the radiant Tsidii Le Loka, the original Rafiki in "The Lion King."
Though Irish dancing is very properly the show's specialty, there is not only the flamboyant flamenco dancer, Maria Pages, but the American tappers, led by a dazzlingly acrobatic Walter "Sundance" Freeman, and a good group of Moiseyev-style Russians who add their own caviar-zest to the proceedings.
But, yes, just as you once went to Nathan's for the hot dogs, you go to "Riverdance" primarily for the Irish dancing. And the Irish musicians – who indeed are splendid.
All Irish dance has a certain built-in problem it almost seems ungracious to mention. Seen one Irish dance and you've seen them all. Well, that's not quite fair, is it?
But no one has so far really solved the problem of transforming step-dancing from a folk-dance style into a creative form.
Michael Flatley, the original chief dancer and choreographer of "Riverdance," much of whose work still remains in the current version, came fairly close here, and perhaps even closer in his own show "Lord of the Dance."
But he never escaped from the limited range of steps, or the tendency towards Rockette-like ensembles.
A little goes rather a long way -- still it is a handsomely danced way which, with the interpolated stylistic variety of the Russians and the tappers, keeps monotony at bay.
The present leading dancers, and the stars of the show, are a new young couple, Pat Roddy and Eileen Martin, She's a fine dancer, but Roddy is the one with true brilliance.
At present, although he is technically a better dancer than both, he lacks the showmanship and presence of his predecessors in the show, Flatley and Colin Dunne. This could come -- he certainly already has peerless finesse and flash.
So "Riverdance" has made it to Broadway – and whether your mother came from Ireland or was actually the Queen of Romania, you should find a lot enjoy in this well-seasoned Irish stew of dance.
Admit to facing a first-time seeing of "Riverdance" and a reviewer is peppered with advice, "Be nice," fans plead, "Kill them," others hiss, "Keep an open mind," the peacemakers add.
Essentially there is only one thing to say about the Irish music and dance show, which has returned to New York for a limited run at the Gershwin Theater. The phenomenon rolls on, as inexorably as the sonorous voice of Liam Neeson summons up the pounding seas and dark nights of Ireland in the taped text that runs through "Riverdance on Broadway," as this installment is called.
The best of the show, seen in preview on Wednesday night, is the step dancing, Battalions of fast-moving men and women race about the stage in strict formation, bodies rigid except for their chattering feet and scissoring legs. Led by Pat Roddy and Eileen Martin, two young world Irish dance champions who look innocently pleased at this turn their lives have taken, the Riverdance Irish Dance Troupe surges along, moving in unison to exciting effect.
The musicians, ranged at the sides of the stage, have a charmingly impish look, and their playing is another plus when you can hear it over the overamplification. Robbie Harris, who plays a small drum called the bodhran, is a cheeky delight. Athena Tergis's dancing feet fly almost as fast as her hand bows her fiddle. And Kenneth Edge's haunting saxophone solo, in a duet with Ivan Goff on the uillean pipe, steals the heart in one of the show's few moments of genuine emotion.
As before, "Riverdance" incorporates dance and music from other nations. Walter "Sundance" Freeman nearly steals the show with his ebullient tap and street-dance solo, in a trio of fine tappers completed by Channing Cook Holmes and Karen Calloway Williams. The Moscow Folk Ballet Company injects some high-flying Moiseyev-style acrobatics into the proceedings, and the Amanzi Singers from South Africa get the house rocking with their vibrant music. Noel Heraty completes the cast of soloists.
The lead singers -- Tsidii Le Loka of "Lion King" fame, the Irish pop singer Brian Kennedy and Sara Clancy, a Charlotte Church sound-alike -- fail to do much with the soupy cliches of their songs. "Riverdance on Broadway" also includes some dreadful stuff billed as flamenco, performed by Maria Pages. And the show looks as if it is unfolding in an olde-Irish parking garage.
But there will always be, it seems, a "Riverdance." This one, directed by John McColgan with music and lyrics by Bill Whelan, is playing at the Gershwin (222 West 51st Street).
Although its opening was presumably timed to coincide with St. Patrick's Day, at this point in its astonishing career "Riverdance" is really about as Irish as, well, Tsidii Le Loka, the erstwhile "Lion King" star who has now, a bit incongruously, joined the show for its open-ended Broadway run.
The celebration of Irish dance and culture that was famously born as an intermission spectacle at the Eurovision Song Contest is now a global goulash. That's apt enough, since it continues a lucrative march around the world, pulling in a million a week on the road in the U.S. alone. Gotham theater critics may be as impervious to this show's allures as it will be to their slings and arrows. They'll reach for the smelling salts, while it keeps running, giving the Nederlanders a rare viable tenant for the cavernous Gershwin, the biggest house on Broadway.
"Riverdance's" original raison d'etre, traditional Irish step-dancing, now vies with various other elements for supremacy, but it remains the most appealing aspect of the show. When the corps is arrayed lengthwiseshow. When the corps is arrayed lengthwise across the wide Gershwin stage, Rockettes-style, their torsos ramrod-stiff while their feet perform astonishing feats of agility, it's easy to be mesmerized by the dancing's visceral appeal. The precision alone is awe-inspiring, as two dozen dancers execute the same intricate steps to the speedy rhythms of the fiddle music.
Aside from the Irish Dance Troupe, led by the shiny, lively star couple Pat Roddy and Eileen Martin, the show also features the Moscow Folk Ballet Co., which performs a brisk and acrobatic number in the second act (the women's fouettes are fierce), and a quartet of black tappers in the vein of Savion Glover. The latter perform a sort of comic dancing duel with Roddy and a trio of his fellow Irish dancers, to the audience's delight. Also a crowd favorite is Maria Pages, a flamenco specialist who smolders spectacularly through two numbers. The appeal of rhythmically stomping feet, "Riverdance" makes clear, is a cross-cultural phenomenon, interpreted with various indigenous flavors in each country.
Brian Kennedy, an Irish tenor, has a prominent role, and his high-lying voice suits composer Bill Whelan's soaring Irish folk-pop songs, whose lyrics are not to be examined too closely ("I am living to nourish you, cherish you/I am pulsing the blood in your veins/Feel the magic and power of surrender to life..."). Le Loka and a troupe of African singers appealingly perform two high-energy numbers in the second act, but their inclusion - which can be seen as either admirable or cynical - is probably the show's most strained grasp at multicultural appeal.
One might wish for rather less of the pretentious and inane narration (does Liam Neeson know what his disembodied voice is getting up to?), not to mention the vague medieval theatrics, which uncomfortably resemble a New Age take on "Xena: Warrior Princess." Fortunately the air is regularly cleared by the nimble physical exuberance of the various dancers, which really needs no contextualizing.
The show's technical aspects are polished, with Rupert Murray's lighting making the most distinguished contribution. Best of Joan Bergin's innumerable costumes were the colorful full skirts for the "Oklahoma!" -esque square dance number at the top of the second act.
Hot on the flapping heels of "Riverdance" comes the second Irish-themed entry of the Broadway season, the new revival of Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," opening three days later. The juxtaposition suggests an intriguing possibility, made only more plausible by "Riverdance's" strenuous use of sun and moon imagery. This show could use some highbrow credentials, O'Neill some audience-grabbing spectacle - how about a production of "Moon" performed entirely in stepdance? "A Moondance for the Misbegotten."