Our review of Riverdance: Live From New York City, published February 21st, 2000, is also available.
Paging Michael Flatley…entertainment paging a Mr. Michael Flatley…
The least likely excuse for foreign entertainment ever to hit these shores since that weird white-haired muscle man Jocko guy from Australia who said "OY!" a lot and advertised Eveready Energizer batteries (thank god for the far less flaming pink rabbit), Riverdance, or as it is known to the common man, tap dancing without the flagrant arm movement, is a well-loved PBS pledge drive phenomenon. It starred Michael Flatley, an American born hoofer who could barely manage a brogue and a red haired Celtic Nicole Kidman named Jean Butler. Surrounded by a veritable army of Enya wannabes, these lithe leprechauns lined up to fleet their feet to the Gaelic beat and prove that men in tight pants doing incredible high kicks could remotely be considered masculine. Using precision choreography, lots of Windham Hill shillelagh samples, and a wee bit of the old Barnum ballyhoo, the show became a massive international hit. So what did Flatley do with his newfound fame and fortune? Squander it on chicks and cheap whiskey? Fock nah, me ould segotia. He left the show and started his own fanciful foot parade called, get this…LORD of the Dance. Oh yeah, baby. First there was Lord of the Manor. Then there was Lord of the Rings. But I bet you didn't know there was such a thing as an omnipresent entity of the jig. Well, pull up a Guinness and be enlightened. As the egomaniacal mallerina went off to stage his own musical version of Dungeons and Dragons (with a little shamrock shake thrown in for good measure), the hobbled hit show had to find a way to keep the tributary from running financially dry. So they plugged in an anti-Flatley, a dark goateed guy named Colin Dunne, and continued to fight like the IRA for a place in the heart of every elderly public television patron.
And this Colin-inzed version of the watery waltz is what you receive when you pop open the telltale silver slipcase of Riverdance: Live from New York City in Columbia TriStar's sanctified scamola format called Superbit. Yes folks, how do you make a crappy video version of a frenetic stage show even more overhyped? Simple—put it in this technologically tricky flim flam configuration and hope people don't notice the lack of extras, or decent videography. In actuality, this showcase for the Riverdance ruse is pretty palatable. Dunne can sure snap his ankles and triple click his tootsies, and the singers have a remarkable Brian Wilson quality to their harmonious harangues (you keep waiting for them to drop the ersatz Watermark outtakes and break into a joyful chorus of "Craic, Craic, Craic" or "Aye Git Arund"). But there is also an unremarkable sameness to what goes on. The best way to describe the "plot" of this so-called singing and dancing extravaganza is to mix a little Irish mysticism with flowery fruity language, throw in some of the worst drunken Emerald isle poetry ever picked out of Dylan Thomas' puke bucket, and, for some odd reason, spice with flamenco dancing and NYC street tap, and you've got one mean multicultural hodgepodge. It's kind of like ordering fajitas at Bennigans during open mic amateur slam night. Still, it's occasionally exciting and almost always exhilarating. After all, not many of us can gain consciousness long enough to somnambulate from the recliner to the refrigerator to refill our 44oz. Spider-man collectors cup with another quart of Mountain Dew, let alone leap in the air with a flamboyant scissor kick (maybe after you chug the super sugared caffeine cooler). With the wealth of talent and athletic skill behind it, this should be a fantastic framework for dazzling feet.
But there is one huge, huge, huge problem with this production, something that takes all the fun out of the frenzy and craft out of the chorus line. Whoever this John McColgan is when he's at home, to call him a director with a flair for properly composing shots of artistes arting is like saying Ashton Kutcher is a genius of undeniable subtlety. McColgan needs a rudimentary course in where to put the camera, what to shoot, and how to edit it together in order to capture and create a stirring dance production. Heck, comatose snake handlers with the IQ of moist towelettes know better than to shoot a dancer in a medium shot where all you see is their chest and head. Dang, even Jessica Simpson could figure that shite out. Riverdance is all about unbelievably intricate footwork and leg movement. It's all about rhythmic precision and meticulous choreography. So what does our dopey director-in-straining do? He edits like he's got ants in his movie-o-la, jump cutting so frequently that you'll think you're having an epileptic fit. And when he does make his rapid-fire frame farts, he cuts to shots of upper bodies in near static non-motion. You never get the feel for what Riverdance is like in a staged setting. When he provides a long shot, it's from about 800 rows back and the performers turn into prancing peanuts on a monumental atrium. Radio City Music Hall (where this experiment in visual errors was filmed) looks stunning, but we want to see the elaborate crackle of heel/toe to wooden board, not close-ups of lads and lassies needing a good dousing of Irish Spring.
To continue beating this camera operator crudity into the ground just a little while longer, McColgan shows that, when he's forced to (maybe he was taking a whiz or something) he can create entrancing visuals that stun the eye. When the Flamenco queen, Maria Pagés, takes the stage to do a slinky, sultry seductive turn in front of a red hot back drop, itself pulsating with undulating waves of (artistically created) light heat, the dark silhouette swaying in front of the burnt orange cauldron is remarkable. But then, like a hummingbird with ADD, it's time for more pointless jump cuts. At least it's nice to know that he treats all performance—dance, singing, instrumental solos—with the same finger popping direction. And the result is always the same as well. You never get the chance to settle in, to actually become part of the audience and simply enjoy the creativity and athleticism. Just as a routine begins to build a tempo and pace—BOOM!—another random shot of face followed by—ZAP!—an all-encompassing audience view that renders the Riverdancians miniscule. Such a cinematic stumbling block makes any cumulative effect from Riverdance: Live from New York City irritating instead of delightful. The fact that you can still be entertained in spite of the stupid shot choices here indicates the level of lucky charms this kind of performance has. When given a chance to be viewed sans spasmodics, Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, or Happy Feet Fiesta, whatever you want to call it, can be invigorating and even moving. There is a grace in the movement of the human body and a sensation in showmanship that is all but destroyed in Riverdance: Live from New York City.
As for the Superbit, let's get one thing straight up front: this critic doesn't buy it, both figuratively and literally. It seems that if there was such an appreciable difference, every studio would release their premium DVD titles in the format, creating expensive multi-coaster sets with a primo picture package on disc one and a bevy of bonuses spread out over numerous, easy to overcharge for, discs. Yet there are those who swear by the technology, claiming that if you have a superior home theater set up, the difference is appreciable. Well, by the look of the folks lining up to buy $30 DVD players at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, there's not much chance of anyone really noticing. Besides, the picture itself is terrible. Writing for the site back in 2000, retired Judge David Rogers commented on how crappy this version of the show looked (and how much he loved Colin Dunne and Riverdance in general, FYI) and demanded a re-release. Well, Dave, here you go, an image that still looks foggy and fuzzy without the clarity and crispness we expect from DVD. Also, the close-ups are still the only time when we see any real detail or depth. Otherwise there remains that second generation retread feel to the video to film (or perhaps its HDTV to standard digital) transfer and no amount of additional bitrate is going to improve on the paltry print they had to work with. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 is acceptable (DTS was unavailable to this critic) with some nice concert atmosphere and excellent musical reproduction. The mostly front channel mix, however, may disappoint anyone looking for ambient antics. And as this is Superspit, there is not a single extra to be had.
Unless you can stand a poorly directed, pale looking imitation of what so many, around the globe, find to be foot tapping fun, you may want to avoid Riverdance: Live from New York City and wait for another round of the equally unimpressive Do-Wop Oldies Concerts which now flood fundraising marathons. Riverdance in general is a fine show, but it is completely fudged up in the capture.
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