Irish-American dance sensation Michael Flatley catapulted Irish dancing into the mainstream with his first hit show, Riverdance, in 1994. He followed that up with the record-breaking, worldwide smash-hit, Lord of the Dance, in 1997, which has since gone on to break records and box offices around the world. Now the most successful touring production in entertainment history, its 25th anniversary tour chassés its way to Cardiff for a limited time this week.
The music begins, and clips from the production’s history are projected onto the stage as Flatley explains in voiceover how the story came to him in a dream, and how the show made that dream a reality. Then the stage darkens, and lights appear one by one, glowing orbs held by hooded druids that glide so ethereally you feel as though you’re walking through a dream yourself. Then the Little Spirit (Cassidy Ludwig) plays the titular tune on her magic flute and awakens ‘Planet Ireland’: a mystical, medieval fantasy world ruled over by the Lord of the Dance (Matt Smith), who is plunged into an epic battle for both heart(h) and home.
Drawing on Irish folklore, Flatley not only created the show, but produced, directed and choreographed it. There’s nothing quite like Irish dancing, and there’s nothing quite like Lord of the Dance: a mesmerizing spectacle from start to finish. The degree of athleticism, precision and timing on display is astounding, with the 40-strong cast showcasing an unparalleled level of skill and boundless energy. It’s dizzyingly good: I’ve simply never seen dancing like it. Smith steps into Flatley’s iconic shoes with ease; with unmatched bravado and charisma to spare, Smith weaves such a spell on the audience you simply have to join in with the dancing yourself.
There is only one Lord of the Dance, and he does not share power – but there’s a worthy contender for the throne in the shape of the Dark Lord (Zoltan Papp). Dressed like an embattled biker king, Papp brings a sinister swagger that had the audience booing (or, in my case, cheering) as if he were a pantomime villain. His duel with Smith is as thrilling a setpiece as you can imagine, and features some of the finest dance-fighting this side of West Side Story.
There’s not a weak link or a missed step in the whole ensemble, from Cyra Taylor’s mercurial Morrighan to Lauren Clarke’s sparkling Saoirse. Cassidy Ludwig brings a puck-like, playful charm to the Little Spirit, whose performance shines even more brightly than her glittery golden costume. The music, composed by Ronan Hardiman and Gerard Fahy, segues from lilting Celtic ballads one minute to ritualistic chants and sweeping epics the next, some of which is even performed live on stage courtesy of Giada Costenaro Cunningham and Aisling Sage’s first-class violin duets and singer Celyn Cartwright as Erin the Goddess, whose heavenly interludes give the cast time for a spritely costume change.
It’s fitting that the last word – or should that be ‘dance’? – is left to the man who started it all, with a trio of projected Flatleys out-dancing one another, only to be joined by the whole cast dancing in unison. If, like me, you have a much-loved VHS copy of Riverdance in pride of place on the shelf, or if you’ve never experienced the thrill of Irish dancing before, then this is the show for you. Lord of the Dance is only at the New Theatre for a limited time, so join the 60 million people who have loved and lived this show for an encore like no other. There have been 25 years of standing ovations so far, and if last night was any indication, here’s to 25 more!
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