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Review: ‘Riverdance’ is back in Chicago. Want to know if those Irish dancers have slowed at all in 25 years? They haven’t.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2/5/2020 By Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

The 25th anniversary production of “Riverdance” begins with one of those slick highlight reels you often see at concerts by artists who’ve had long careers. There’s “Riverdance” with Liza! Look at David Letterman! Isn’t that Pierce Brosnan before the grey hair?

Of course, “Riverdance” is not a person but a cultural product — arguably, the Republic of Ireland’s most influential international export in the realm of entertainment and, for the record, a phenomenon that was very much ignited here in Chicagoland, during a series of performances at the Rosemont Theatre that enjoyed a euphoric reception I won’t soon forget. The brand here is not specific performers, at least not since the days of Michael Flatley, but the art of Irish step dancing, packaged with narrative and spectacle so as to attract an audience that rarely, if ever, goes to see dance.

The form, of course, involves precision and uniformity. Upper bodies remain rigid, smiles remain fixed, creativity must blend with coordination. On that video, you see “Riverdance” performers in a variety of global settings, ambassadors for a style of dance inextricable from the Irish and their diaspora, young women conquering the world together.

That paragraph is probably enough to tell you that I am partial to “Riverdance,” which I’ve come back to see every few years. It hasn’t changed much at all. I mean, the dancers have changed, obviously, given that some in this cast weren’t born when “Riverdance” was first in Rosemont, and the video is higher def, but the basic, old-school, variety-show format is a constant, as is the original Bill Whelan score and the nostalgic backdrop of that beautiful nation. There is a lead pair of Irish dancers, a huge company behind them, mostly costumed in souped-up traditionalism and then, by way of variety, a celebration of separated but related forms, such as two African-American tappers and, in this staging, a small separate company performing dance you associate with Eastern European. “Riverdance,” has always been about participatory dance forms, and a good chunk of its audience is there to marvel not so much at innovation but expertise.

Expertise is what you get. “Riverdance” can pick and choose its performers, and it has resisted any urge to cut back on a full company, or on the live music. And I bet some bean counters have tried.

So, there you go at the Cadillac Palace Theatre: The “Riverdance” you remember, superbly and joyously performed. I found myself musing at how this Irish form communicates in performance; there is something, I think, about the stillness of half the body that seems to create an optical illusion of emotional communication. Dancers can’t be subsumed in whole-body choreography. They are always there. Smiling for you.

The biggest difference from the money-spinning peak years is the deeper commitment to ensemble. The show’s spirit feels more egalitarian these days, which only expands the warm, populist glow.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Riverdance 25th Anniversary Tour” (3 stars)

When: Through Feb. 9

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $32-$90 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com

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©2020 the Chicago Tribune

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