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 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.”