They could be called "The Riverdance Rockettes" -- more than two dozen Irish dancers precision step-dancing, their arms kept tightly to their sides, their legs flying in perfect unison.
That sight is one of the most memorable and remarkable aspects of "River-dance," the thrilling international sensation now at the Lyric Opera House.
But the synchronized dancing isn't the show's only marvel. The two lead Irish dancers -- Niamh Roddy and Michael Patrick Gallagher -- are marvels in their own right. Roddy, with her flowing blond hair and elegant bearing, moves with the grace of a proud, Irish, fairy-tale princess. And Gallagher, well, this young man displays such amazingly fast footwork, you'd swear his ankles were motorized -- or at least on fast-forward.
The choreography in "River-dance" is credited to a host of sources (including the original male lead, Michael Flatley, whom Gallagher ably replaces). For the most part, the Irish dancing is more inspired by than strictly faithful to traditional styles. The chief difference is the precision work. Nor is this simply done in a line -- though that is perhaps the single image most closely associated with "Riverdance."
At various times the corps dance down the steps at the rear of the stage or in groups that form patterns suggesting a Celtic knot come to life. In a muscular number called "Thunderstorm" in the middle of the first act, eight men descend the steps to dance a capella, the sound of their hard shoes creating its own percussive accompaniment.
"Riverdance" isn't solely Irish dancing, however. The show, directed by John McColgan, also showcases styles that influenced, or were influenced by, the Irish. So we see a flamenco dancer (Rosa Manzano Jimenez), a Russian folk troupe and three African-American tappers (Van "The Man" Porter, Martin "Tre" Dumas III and Dexter Jones).
In each case, there are evident connections to the Irish, but the most exuberant manifestation comes in the number "Trading Taps," in which the limber African-Americans challenge three of their Irish counterparts. It's also one of the rare bits of comic relief in an evening whose tone is predominantly solemn.
The main reason for that solemnity is the recorded narration that links many of the numbers and, presumably, provides the thematic thread unifying the production. This thread has to do with Irish myths and traditions, in the first act, and emigration, in the second. However, most of the narration -- credited to Theo Dorgan -- sounds like pretentious kitsch poetry (i.e., "I was the land and the land was me").
This dippy sensibility carries over into some of the lyrics in composer Bill Whelan's original score (i.e., "I am living to nourish you, cherish you"), which includes solos and choral pieces between, and sometimes accompanying, the dance numbers. The music itself is a kind of Euro pop-Irish hybrid that mixes modern instruments, such as electric guitar and keyboard, with traditional Irish instruments, such as Uilleann pipes (a kind of Irish bagpipe) and bodhran (a small drum, proficiently played here by Andrew Reilly).
This production of "River-dance" is one of three currently touring, and it uses a bit more scenery than the others, which rely primarily on projections. Designer Robert Ballagh's loveliest scenic effect comes just before opera singer Ralph Cato's resounding solo, "Heal Their Hearts," when flowing red panels decorated with dark sailing ships descend onto the stage.
But let's face it. Irish dancing -- soft shoe, hard shoe, solo or in unison -- is the reason to see "River-dance." So sit back and soak up the energy of these stirring Irish hoofers, and don't be surprised if there's a little more spring in your step when you leave the Lyric.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 20
Pub Date: 12/03/98