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At last, a Riverdance to love while it lasts

From Thursday's Globe and Mail


Mirvish Productions

At the Canon Theatre

in Toronto on Tuesday

The Riverdance currently in town is not the overblown production I remember. This show is tight, fast-paced and exciting.

The two times I saw Riverdance in the 1990s, I remember a pretentious twaddle of a production that moved at a glacial pace. The recited poetry was banal, the lyrics were sappy, the projections looked like bad illustrations from children's books, the costumes were tasteless, and the tiara worn by the lead female dancer was just plain dumb. Everything conspired to bury the dancing in mythical mush.

Well the tiara, the projections and the costumes are still there, but clearly, over the years, the material has been tweaked so that the good bits stand out more. The cast is smaller and a coherent throughline is now discernible.

Riverdance is called a journey, and the narrative arc goes from the glories of ancient Ireland, through the death of the kings, the dark days of the famine, the mass immigration to the New World, and finally, home again.

And through it all is the hypnotic Irish step dance, those thundering shoes and their intricate patterns, those frozen arms and shoulders and flying feet.

The two lead Irish dancers, Marty Dowds and Alana Mallon, propel the story and give a phenomenal performance. Dowds has an extraordinary high jump and can kick his leg up to 6 o'clock. He also can pack in so many beats per bar that his feet literally become a blur. Mallon is a long-legged beauty who excels at both the soft- and hard-shoe dances. She has both grace and strength.

Another improvement is the inclusion of a flamenco dancer, two black tap dancers and members of the Moscow Folk Ballet Company. Including other members of the global step community makes for good theatre.

Rocio Montoya's flamenco dance with four Irish step-dance swains is electrifying. Montoya is a gorgeous dancer with a supple body and expressive arms. The six Russians, three female and three male, are all capable of the virtuoso tricks of their trade. The men perform showy gymnastics such as the high-jump splits, while the women turn like dervishes.

As for tappers Kelly Isaac and Jason E. Bernard, their Trading Taps number steals the show. Both men are excellent dancers and they show just the right amount of insouciance when up against Dowds and his pals Marcus Maloney and Craig Ashurst. The battle for one-upmanship between the two worlds is both funny and thrilling.

The inclusion of a black baritone, in this case, the supremely talented Michael Samuels, finally makes sense. His solo Heal Their Hearts – Freedom is the Riverdance version of Ol' Man River, a heartfelt cry for a better world. All ethnicities are on stage with Samuels, and collectively they represent the hope of the New World.

The seven singers led by soloist Laura Yanez have strong diction, so that one can actually pick out the words. Their a cappella singing was impressive.

Special mention should be made of the tight band under keyboardist Cathal Synnott. Fiddler Pat Mangan, percussionist Steve Holloway, saxophonist Daniel Dorrance and Matt Bashford, who plays the pipes and whistles, all get extended solos and bring the house down with their spirited playing.

Somehow this particular Riverdance production feels more accessible, perhaps because it is geared to a smaller theatre. At any rate, Internet gossip claims that, after 15 years on the road, Riverdance will be retired in 2010. I'm just glad I had a chance to revisit the show.

Riverdance continues at the Canon Theatre until June 21.

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