It is said you can’t judge a book by its cover. I say that is bullshit. Because you most certainly can judge a performance of “Riverdance” by its audience. I could stop here and say “Enough said” but I won’t. Instead, I will write. Here’s how it all went down.
My hunch that this is going to be a most interesting affair is confirmed when I pull into the $10 parking lot adjacent to the Pantages Theater. It is raining and drivers that would otherwise be going faster, drive slower. Oh, wait. No. These people are ancient. They would be driving this speed regardless. A silver mini-van with a handicap conversion kit affixed to its tow hitch passes by in slow motion like an apparition of my future. The Ghost of Christmas Future. Shudder.
I sit in my now parked car, waiting for my dad to drive in from Santa Monica. The rain pelts lightly on the windshield. I talk on the phone to Karen about old the past and the future, travels to Hungary, birthday parties. My talkative reverie is interrupted with the dense thud that can only mean some asshole has thrown their car door into yours. I twist my head around and yell, “What the hell?!” like a banshee on Sudafed. I follow loudly with, “Excuse me!” as I wind down my window to better acquaint myself with the fifty-year-old female culprit. She looks like a second grade teacher which makes scolding her feel awkward and strange, like being the twenty-five-year-old CEO of a dot com company bossing around forty-year-old engineers. I go out to inspect the damage, which is none from what I can tell, and I don’t even feel vindicated by the tongue-lashing I have delivered her. It is altogether a worthless experience.
Oh, yes. What am I doing at in the parking lot adjacent to the Pantages Theater waiting for my dad to show up so we can go see a “Riverdance” performance? Good question. Allow me to explain.
A decade ago my dad was quite smitten with Michael Flatley and his bevy of toe tapping, leg kicking, sort of Celtic ladies and gentlemen. I cannot explain where the fascination stemmed from; we are neither Irish by heritage nor dancers by trade. My only explanation is that my father is a delightful weirdo – a man who, for as long as I can remember, has worn things like clogs and leopard print Keds, shirts with the Virgin Mary in a blaze of burning crosses (not the blasphemous kind) to Christmas parties. This is my dad. He is amazing.
So in December, when I saw that “Riverdance” was coming back for their swan song final tour (sans Michael Flatley Lord of the Dance), I knew that I had to take my dad to see this spectacle, if only to wean him off of the teat of embarrassingly strange taste.
I meet my dad outside of the Pantages, which is a beautiful testament to Hollywood Art Deco dipped in silver and gold. It reminds me of what it might be like to be inside of a very expensive wristwatch. The crowd, it appears, is either fifteen years younger than me or at least twenty years older. How strange that “Riverdance” is not popular amongst my peers. Pity. We take our seats across from what looks like a group of white hairs out for a retirement home field trip. The lights dim and the magic begins.
Before this moment, I really didn’t know what to expect out of “Riverdance”. I was under the impression that the show would include numerous Celtic dance numbers and that is all. Not so.
“Riverdance: The Journey” opens with a booming MovieFone narration about “our people” and some reference to a fictitious war. It is hard for me to follow because I keep flashing back to sitting in high school lit class, reading Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales while pulling at the edges of my corduroy pants. I was sure that that would be the last time that I would be subjected to such versions of ye ol’ English, but “Riverdance” seems to be attempting to bring something similar back from the dead.
From the black of stage right, a man walks out until his flute gleams under a strategically placed spotlight. At first I am sure that this is merely a visual ploy and he is not playing at all, but he remains there for the rest of show, along with a group of five other nerds who manage to turn Celtic tunes into top 40s, contemporary elevator music a la the Titanic soundtrack.
Fog spills out from center stage, creating a bog-like atmosphere around which the dancers come to march, stiff legged and swathed in velvet Ice Capades numbers. The girls are shorter and stalkier than any dancers I have seen; the men are only slightly taller than that and similarly ample in girth. Their movements lack the levity of that found in the anorexic professionals at Lincoln Center or Julliard. Their marching subsides in an explosion of synchronized pony kicking and the clacking of shoes. This is the “Riverdance” I sort of grew up with.
The female lead, the prima Riverdancerina as it were, is the most petite of the group. She is (of course) also the most physically attractive…in a failed Dallas cheerleader type of way. Her hair reminds me of a babysitter I had in middle school. She had a broken leg and tan arms; she made giant scrunchies out of fabric scraps and she’d put her thick, waist-long blonde hair in them before driving us to a pool in Thousand Oaks so she could hang out with her boyfriend. My mom fired her after a month.
Prima Riverdancerina has an ample rack, as does 98% of the remaining dance squad. It seems as though giant jugs are a prerequisite for entrance into “Riverdance” glory. I find this aspect of the show particularly amusing because while “Riverdance” does not advertise itself as a terribly sexed affair, it most certainly is. Michael Flatley took what drunk Irish peasants used to do in a bar and added glitter and a push up bra, proving that if you add sex to anything, you’ve got a franchise. Baywatch, Doritos, you get the idea. I doubt the people around me are willing to admit to being subconsciously tantalized, as the audience (even in Los Angeles) seems to have a down home, God fearing quality to it. Sex? Oh, heavens no! But as this little pop tart bounces up and down, I can tell just by watching the live band that everyone in the room would like to fornicate with this woman.
Michael Flatley, who is probably fifty by now and can longer jig like the dickens, has been replaced by a raven-haired dandy with lightening legs and an impressive wardrobe. For his first number, we are treated to Seinfeld’s pirate shirt plus rhinestone embellishments. For his second, a snug leather bondage outfit probably purchased from Rough Trade and then retrofitted with some elastic to afford more room for leg kicks. More glittery weird things follow, but the first two make the greatest impression on me.
There is something about the show that reminds me of an equestrian center on Fire Island or a subdued rodeo. The severe kicks and pony-like manes. The glitter. Dear God, the mass amounts of glitter. During the second scene, Prima Riverdancerina bounds around in a purple mini-dress, flanked by ladies swathed in pink. They are the new and improved My Little Sex Ponies.
The curtains go down on the first act and I am confused as to what I was just watching for the last hour. There were solos, the occasional synchronized act, a group of Charles Dickens-era singers who waddled in singing incoherently. The live band took over a few times playing instruments I don’t know the names of. A flamenco dancer appears inexplicably within the act a couple times. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting such a smorgasbord of vaguely international influences.
Things get even more confusing at the start of the second act, when the narrator talks about how the battle has been won or some nonsense and the “people” are on to a new era. I suppose this is how they justify what is to come, which is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life.
The background changes to a terrible graphic rendering of the Manhattan skyline. A man with a saxophone takes stage left and the music veers off into jazz infused with, of course, a Celtic feel to it. Two African American dancers glide onto the stage like the smoothest cats in town, pants baggy and shirts unbuttoned. They start to soft shoe and tap around freely. This is by far my favorite part of the show. Whereas “Riverdance” feels like the musical version of Dungeons & Dragons, these boys make me think of Paula Abdul videos circa 1992. In other words, a damn good time.
A few scenes later, the new Michael Flatley comes in with two tight-assed gentlemen. They are then taunted by the softshoers. Don’t worry; it’s part of the act. This insights faux rage in the Riverdancers and a dance off ensues. Literally. I cannot describe this with words and do it justice. You have to see it for yourself. But just imagine what your grandparents could do if they could still move agilely. Now imagine them reenacting moves from their hay day and then expecting you to come at them with some sort of body language informed response. Hey, Grandkid! [Grandpa does the Charleston] Take that sucka! [Grandma starts to Fandango] What you lookin’ at me like that for, fool?! [Both end with a Foxtrot, to which you respond with Crypt Walking and getting Crunk]
By the time the lights come up to indicate the end of the show (no encore, needed, thank God), I have laughed out loud three times. I surmise to guess that my dad enjoyed the spectacle. I certainly have, albeit in an entirely different manner. We rush to the aisle to exit, making our way past old women creeping up hill with their walkers and little kids screeching about how they can’t believe how fast the dancers can move their legs. We leave the Pantages, getting into our cars before the rain begins to fall again. And just like that, “Riverdance: The Journey” is over.