Near the end of Riverdance--The Show, there's a brief yet moving scene that beautifully clarifies and unifies all thirteen of the Irish dance extravaganza's far-flung episodes. To the bow-shredding accompaniment of a lone violinist, the fervent company of singers and dancers--who transport us to such outposts of the unofficial Irish empire as New York City, Macedonia and Andalucia--assemble on stage to sing and dance "Home and the Heartland," a paean to their ancestral roots. Suddenly it becomes clear that, far from abandoning tradition in favor of an ultra-modern style all their own, this exuberant band of emigrants' children is determined to retain the spirit of their forebears even as they assimilate into an overly modish, sometimes culturally contemptuous society.
Originally presented as a seven-minute dance routine during a 1994 television broadcast, the touring production (which sold out within five days of its announced arrival in Denver) is a two-hour combination of flamenco, ballet, tap and traditional Irish step dance underscored by the spirited strains of a live twelve-piece band and strolling ten-voice singing group. Although the portentous presence of a disembodied voice and the use of a couple of cheesy backdrops make you wonder whether the current effort at the Buell Theatre ought to be retitled "Riverdance--The Planetarium Dance Capades," the multi-national ensemble of performers nonetheless delivers a world-class exhibition of balletic grace mixed with athletic bravado.
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Sporting contemporary grimaces, smart coiffures and green-and-black dance-studio-chic costumes, the company performs the opening number, "Reel Around the Sun," with sophisticated verve. (Credit much of the show's wondrous choreography to original lead dancer Michael Flatley, whose involvement with the production ceased when it became apparent that sporting arenas were the only spaces large enough to accommodate the self-proclaimed Lord of the Dance's monumental ego.) After a short narrative interlude, the superb Pat Roddy bursts through an upstage portal and, his feet barely touching the floor, effortlessly step-dances his way to the edge of the expansive stage, where he leads his colleagues in a series of boldly traditional yet subtly modern moves. On the heels of a soaring ballad sung by soprano Katie McMahon and the choir, eight female dancers offer "Women of Ireland," a lyrical number that sets the stage for the entrance of the ebullient Eileen Martin. Wearing a royal purple costume studded with hundreds of tiny rhinestones, Martin and her distaff coterie form a line at the top of a staircase and execute an impressive tapping routine that culminates with Martin's delivering a few defiant six-foot-high kicks in the direction of three loitering, black-shirted rogues. Then, holding theatergoers rapt with his soulful rendition of the lament "Caoineadh Ch Chulainn," uilleann pipe master Brian O'Brien proves that the instrument he plays is part bagpipe and part divine inspiration. Following Marta Jimenez Luis's sultry flamenco solo, the entire company ends Act One by dancing the show's signature piece, "Riverdance." It's a splendid finale that conjures up an Irish version of a famous Shakespearean rhapsode: "Now all the youth of Ireland are on fire."
Act Two begins with "American Wake," an energetic folk dance featuring warring circles of locked-arm participants, bringing to mind both the unbridled spiritualism of Shaker worship services and the down-home fervor of frontier square dances. As tasteful, Turner-like images of sailing ships form a massive triptych upstage, a silver-throated Charles Gray (whom local audiences might remember for his bravura portrayal in the Vogue Theatre's A Brief History of White Music a couple of seasons back), steps forward to sing "Heal Their Hearts." Intertwining the immigrant experience with a black man's cry for freedom, the stirring tune concludes with a memorable refrain as Gray croons, "Heal their hearts/Feed their souls/Their lives can be golden if your love enfolds."
Gray's dulcet tones form a perfect prelude to the show's crowd-pleasing centerpiece, "Trading Taps," an exquisitely danced scene in which three Irish lads led by Roddy face down three inner-city hoofers (Rolondas Hendricks, Toby Harris and Karen Callaway Williams) in a highly charged duel for tap-dance supremacy that's vaguely reminiscent of West Side Story. Amid standing back flips, blinding foot-tapping and good-natured street taunts, the six dancers travel across the stage together in a splendid interfusion of jazz and traditional Irish music. No sooner does one performer raise his hands above his head than, not missing a beat, audience members spontaneously join in rhythmic clapping for the remainder of the glorious episode. The production then takes a slightly different tack as six members of the Moscow Folk Ballet Company perform a fantasia on the immigrant theme against the backdrop of a Manhattan skyline. By the time the company gathers for an internationally flavored reprise of the "Riverdance" number, director John McColgan's well-conceived production comes full circle: As the company somehow maintains a tight, rigid formation while managing to dance with wild abandon, their concerted efforts serve as both a sentimental homage to their ancestors' lore and a crystal-clear beacon for future generations.
Riverdance--The Show, through September 26 at the Buell Theatre (all remaining performances sold out), at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.