Faith and begorah! 'Tis a foin collection of rompin' and stompin' ye've got goin' on here, Judge Jeff Andreasen. What ye be doin' sitting on yer keister?
Disturbing the peace.
It's easy to mock Riverdance, the soft- and hard-shoe Irish tap dance revival that exploded into the world's consciousness in 1994. The rigid, staid style that the show is known, and mocked, for the Yanni-esque music that accompanies every wildly stomping body and the William Shatner of Irish dance, Michael Flatley. Its overnight success and resulting ubiquitousness brought with it a backlash from Riverdance overkill. Among other lampoons, Jim Abrahams' (co-creator of Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Hot Shots!) 1998 Godfather spoof Mafia! did a funny take-off on Riverdance with its chubby Irish dancer who becomes a Mafia hit man, and Ben Stiller gave it a shot in 2003's Duplex. But to hammer too hard at it, or blaze away with the artless invective of a Denis Leary, is to denigrate the toil and achievement of a great number of artists and producers who really did create something special.
Now that the hubbub has died down some and Riverdance has faded a bit into the background, out comes this 10-year retrospective on the phenomenon, its origins, and its evolution. Narrated by original Riverdance female lead dancer Jean Butler (of New York, not Ireland), the main feature is a compilation culled from three shows, the television special from 1995 starring Butler and Chicago-born Michael Flatley, the 1997 show at Radio City Music Hall with Butler and Colin Dunne, and a 2003 show in Geneva starring new leads Brendán de Gallaí and Joanne Doyle.
The energy and passion flooding over the stage from both the dancers and the musicians is palpable, even on DVD (well, if your television's big enough). Having never seen a live performance by the troupe, I can't compare it to a live stage show, but I bet it's impressive. The included documentary, "Riverdance…The Ten Years," shows a bit of the behind-the-scenes preparation that goes into each show, but I'm sure it doesn't even scratch the surface.
Riverdance began life as a seven-minute presentation at the 2004 EuroVision Song Contest in Dublin, Ireland. Producer Moya Doherty and director John McColgan watched the explosive applause as the crowd burst to its feet at the number's finale and determined that they had a winner on their hands. Doherty and McColgan mortgaged just about everything they owned, begged, borrowed, and stole what funds they could, and expanded the original premise into a two-hour show encompassing not only the Irish dancing aspect of the performance, but also Russian folk dancing, ballet, Spanish flamenco dance, and American tap, as well as other styles. Blended together and dancing to the distinctly Irish tune of composer Bill Whelan's musical compositions performed by a live band of outstanding musicians, Riverdance—The Show, a risky venture in the nervous minds of Doherty and McColgan, opened in February 1995 at the Point Theatre in Dublin. It sold out and drew gushing reviews from jaded critics, awestruck stars, and the starry-eyed public. Standing-room-only shows in London and New York followed and Riverdance was a bona-fide phenomenon.
Along the way, Riverdance proved its artistic mettle by raking in the accolades (and bucks) from critics in every country they performed in, and composer Whelan won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show in something of an upset. That was the same year Titanic gobbled up everyone's money at the box office, and if you close your eyes at the right times during a screening of this DVD, you'll expect Celine Dion to break out in a chorus of "My Heart Will Go On."
This DVD compiles all the impressive numbers, including the strident "Thunderstorm," the crowd-pleasing "Trading Taps," where Irish dance and American tap meet, and, of course, the "Finale." Other nationalities are represented in the "Firedance," performed by Spain's Maria Pagés, and the "Russian Dervish," a lively number with an athleticism that leaves the traditional Irish dancers in the dust. There are also impressive vocal performances (and some not-so-impressive) and rousing musical numbers by musicians who really seem to be enjoying their work.
The DVD presentation, however, is a bit confusing and sometimes maddening. Instead of showing a single performance of a dance, say, danced by Jean Butler, the producers spliced together various performances of a single number as danced by several different leads. So for "Countess Cathleen," it's jarring to recognize Jean Butler in her 1997 deep blue dress suddenly transmogrify into the rather more robust Joanne Doyle from 2003's show. The video quality suffers greatly from this montage approach to the presentation.
The original 1995 show was originally released on VHS video tape, and that's exactly the quality those portions of this DVD present. Colors bleed, there's a fair amount of video noise, and an unpleasant softness permeates these portions, as though the focus is off. The 1997 and, especially, 2003 performances do not suffer much in the way of video deficiencies. In these portions, the colors are bright and rich, there's little bleeding (except some reds, always a troublesome color), and everything's in sharp focus.
The thunderous sound of Riverdance is served well by either the 2.0 Dolby Digital or the 5.1 Surround. The musical numbers are equal in quality to any number of strictly music DVDs out there, and the crazed audience response to our mulleted hero's spritely prancing is genuinely engaging. Alas, the 5.1 doesn't sound particularly impressive, with the rear channels less bombastic than you'd expect, given the number of shoes stomping on the stage and the level of audience involvement at every show. I cranked this up pretty loud on the 58-incher's built-in speakers and noticed no distortion and plenty of boom. It sounds even better on the Vaio's Creative 5.1 Surround system, though, as I pointed out, the rear channels are quieter than 5.1 Surround should be.
The value of the extras varies. The main featurette, "Riverdance…The Ten Years," is an interesting, though self-serving, look at the genesis of the act. The commentary by producer Doherty and director McColgan is heroic at first, as the truly risk-taking venture took its first tentative steps, but when they refer to every succeeding performance as a "make or break" effort, it becomes tiresome. There comes a point when you really do have the upper hand, and the "us against the world" schtick gets old. Of interest is Riverdance's interpretation of the 1995 breakup with Michael Flatley, who walked away only days before the London premiere. No mention is made of the draconian contract Doherty demanded he accept in order to remain with the troupe, only of his lust for creative control and zeal for the limelight. More genuine and pleasing are the behind-the-scenes bits of the dancers preparing for a performance or talking about the audience reaction in the various countries they've visited. Overall, this is a worthy 60-odd minute sit.
"Riverdance…Behind the Scenes" is best viewed on fast forward, even though it's already time-lapsed. This absolutely worthless look at the ant-like endeavors of the roadies as they strive to erect the sprawling sets is mind-bogglingly dull and unimpressive. After watching workers build in only minutes cyclopean platforms bursting with neon, fireworks, and Janet Jackson's breasts for Super Bowl half-time shows, it's sort of a letdown to see these guys take so long to put up what really is a pretty ordinary display. And the accompanying music is wacky.
The final special feature is Riverdance's performance at the 2003 Special Olympics Opening Ceremony, introduced by Pierce Brosnan and Jean Butler and featuring the longest line of Irish dancers ever on a single stage. Gee. But the performance is indeed noteworthy and executed with the troupe's trademark vigor, something to be said for every performance on this DVD, and probably every one they've ever made.
Riverdance survived its first nervous steps and a venomous rift with Michael Flatley to evolve into a more mammoth and successful production than even its creators could possibly have dreamed. Though this DVD has its faults, lack of respect and enthusiasm aren't among them. Every aspect of the show that has made Riverdance such an unqualified success is here for your viewing pleasure. So, with the court's blessing, throw this disc in the player, crank up the volume, and sit back and enjoy this crowd-pleasing retrospective.
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