The comparisons are inevitable, but despite a couple of toe-tapping, heel-clicking Celtic chorus lines interspersed with songs and virtuoso fiddling, Canada’s “Needfire” is not a “Riverdance” clone.
For one thing the Scots are represented here, with several Highland dance numbers and a couple of beefy pipers who stir up a droning storm with a rock band backup and laser lights. That combination of traditional and contemporary musical traditions is the most daring and arresting moment in the show.
For another, where “Riverdance” is aggressively slick, defiantly showy and impressively packaged, “Needfire” has the whimsy of an evening at the pub, or a night watching country hoedowns on television. In fact, the simpler and more down-home the evening gets, the better it works.
Then too, Tom Lackey (a recent gold medal-winner at the New York radio awards making his musical theater debut) has written a loose narrative for the piece. It’s delivered with laid-back charm by ex-Mamas and Papas crooner Denny Doherty, who sings one song and tells stories about the Needfire, an ancient custom in which the coming of summer was celebrated by extinguishing all the fires in village, followed by rituals in the dark and the relighting of a single flame (the Needfire), which was then carried to each house until all the fires were once again lit. The celebration was called Beltaine. Doherty’s role serves to keep the evening rooted not only to theater, but to the most ancient theatrical ritual of all time — storytelling.
That serves the production nicely when Doherty’s musings are paired with the powerful simplicity of a Gaelic ballad by songstress Mary Jane Lamond, but works against it in moments when director and choreographer Kelly Robinson adopts a more glitzy musical theater approach.
This conflict of style is further heightened by a tug-of-war between Graeme Thomson’s overly busy and complicated set and the in-your-face, rock concert lighting effects by Howard Ungerleider and Steve Ross. Together they often overwhelm the performers, but when the laser lights are used alone to create ambience, they provide some of the most spectacular — and eloquent — images in the show.
Lamond’s haunting rendition of “E Horo” (an immigrant’s lament), during which she is silhouetted in a white spot, framed by a moving green light show and underscored by the thrumming of drums, is shiver time. In fact, this is the one sequence where the eerie ghosts of Beltaine, those time-traveling spirits, seem to break through their cairns and visit the theater.
Another spine-chilling number is “Barrett’s Privateers,” a Stan Rogers ballad about betrayal on the high seas delivered with a minimum of musical accompaniment and a maximum of vocal persuasion by a dozen of the show’s most accomplished singers.
“Needfire” is packed with enormous talent in all departments, including the haunting tenor of John McDermott, the lilting Irish cadences of the Ennis Sisters and a group of dancers who, technically, rival those in “Riverdance.” Soloists Chanda Gibson, Darren Smith and Dan Stacey are steppers extraordinaire, while Highland dancer Xavier Corcoran is majestically balletic.
The entire company of 60 Canadians, drawn from across the country, give their hearts in a way that’s as particularly Canadian as the lyrics they sing. It’ll take a bit more time (rehearsal with the full company was limited to two weeks), as well as some rethinking about structure, but “Needfire” should end up rivaling Michael Flatley and the gang, even as it will always be different.