Theater & art

Dance REview

Thrills aplenty in ‘Riverdance’ at the Wang

The 20th-anniversary version of “Riverdance” continues to dazzle audiences.

Jack Hartin

The 20th-anniversary version of “Riverdance” continues to dazzle audiences.

After 20 years and roughly 11,000 performances, the spectacle that is “Riverdance” might elicit jaded reactions from those who’ve seen the show multiple times. But if the hoots, hollers, screams, and claps of Wednesday night’s audience was any indication, there’s a lot of life in the old show yet. When the full ensemble cuts loose with a fusillade of clattering feet in the catchy mixed rhythms of Irish dance, it can still be downright thrilling.

The current 20th-anniversary tour of the Irish dance and music extravaganza marks its first in North America in four years, and in honor of the occasion, the show has new costumes, new lighting, new projections, and a new number. If you haven’t seen “Riverdance” in a while, it’s worth a revisit. And if you’ve never seen the show or have kids who’ve never seen it, now’s the time.

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Produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, with music composed by Bill Whelan, “Riverdance: 20 Years” can be unabashedly over the top, with eye-popping production elements that include strobe lights, blinding lightning flashes, and a near constant mist of theatrical smoke. Backdrops range from a pastoral Irish countryside to a flaming sun. A loose narrative suggests the weight of history and the cycle of immigration, and the voice-over can be corny and pretentious in its attempt to provide context and pluck the heartstrings. The show also overreaches a bit in trying to incorporate rhythmic influences from other lands: flamenco, tap, Slavic folk dance.

But the most important element — the dancing — is first rate, as is the music. The live musicians — fiddler Pat Mangan, percussionist Mark Alfred, saxophonist Ken Edge, and Matt Bashford on uilleann pipes and whistles — are spectacular, especially when given dedicated numbers in between dances. The singers are quite solid as well, though the soprano soloist struggled with speaker or microphone static during much of the Wednesday show. The atmospheric synthesized background score is far less appealing, sounding like dated New Age filler, and the sound levels were deafening at times.

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Lauren Smyth and Jason O’Neill were Wednesday night’s principal soloists. Smyth gave a lively, commanding performance in both hard and soft shoes, skittering delicately across the floor in one dance, unleashing a barrage of quicksilver taps in another. O’Neill was a knockout, eating up space with fleet footwork and buoyant hops. His legs and feet swiveled as if on ball bearings, and high, angular kicks featured vigorous midair taps and beats. Three of the other athletic male dancers showcased jetés and front split leaps, as well as acrobatic tumbles, spins, and flips. Not your Grandma’s step dance.

The evening’s showstopper was the good-natured face off between three Irish dancers and tappers Michael Everett and Christopher Broughton, highlighting the commonalities and differences between step dance and American tap. They traded phrases, poked fun at one another, and dug into some serious one-upmanship. The Irish dancers, especially O’Neill, displayed blistering speed and impeccable control, while the tappers let loose with abandon, often skirting the edge of balance.

But the heart of the show is the ensemble in the unison precision of pure Irish dance. “Riverdance” is at its best when the full group of 20 dancers takes the stage and launches into the engaging, ratcheting rhythms of the old country.

Riverdance: 20 Years

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At Citi Wang Theatre, Wednesday night (through May 15). Tickets $35-$139. 800-982-2787, www.citicenter.org

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.
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