Friday, February 16, 2001
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal

Productions show differing approaches to musicals

`Riverdance' relies more on footwork 
while `Mars/Venus' depends on wordplay

`Riverdance' relies more on footwork

It's always a reminder of just where we live when shows that cause a big sensation elsewhere come to the Strip and, well, blend right in. 

Of course, "Riverdance" and the Irish New Age step-dancing craze it started already seems so '90s that it could be the first punch line in whatever turns out to be "The Wedding Singer"-style nostalgia movie of the '00s. 

But in Las Vegas, the challenge is tougher still for a show that's visiting the Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts for a six-day run ending Sunday. 

The dreamy, impressionistic lighting of geometric scenery pieces? Check the Cirque du Soleil shows. Athletic choreography and colorful costumes? A tradition of any Las Vegas spectacle. 

And of course there's the year-round presence of "Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance," a cheesy derivative at New York-New York. That one started when "Riverdance" principal Flatley decided he was the whole show, and developed a new star vehicle that now plays without him. 

But the return of "Riverdance -- The Show" is a reminder that there's no substitute for the original -- either in the sincerity of its premise or its lavish execution. 

During the opening number, a scrim changes color to reveal nine musicians on a double-deck stage -- an exciting contrast to the recorded soundtrack across the street. Ditto with the convincingly live vocals of singers Lisa Kelly and Aidan Conway. Even the footfalls of the attractive, youthful company pound more authentically on a "wired" floor. 

"Riverdance" has been around since 1994, and aired endlessly as PBS baby-boomer bait for pledge drives. While the surprise factor is gone by now, at least one should have a good idea whether the music and dance is appealing enough to maintain interest for two 50-minute acts. 

Some segments do lapse into repetition, but the show is surprisingly well-paced. The Moscow Folk Ballet Company turns up to spell the Irish dancers, and flamenco dancer Marta Jimenez-Luis provides cultural contrast when she beguiles the Irish lads. 

Enchanting female lead Tara Barry provides the gravity-defying high kicks, while Michael Pat Gallagher fills Flatley's shoes if not his charisma -- the rascal had a big ego but a roguish charm. 

The show seems to leave itself nowhere to go after the first act's climactic instrumental by composer Bill Whelan, whose work with innovative '80s rockers such as U2 and Kate Bush led to his cinematic reinterpretation of Celtic tradition. 

But it's a surprise -- at least for those who haven't seen the full show -- to find more variety still in the "coming to America" theme of the second act, which includes a rousing showstopper: a duel between three immigrant step-dancers and three black tap-dancers. 

Of course, they end up in a cultural collusion that reminds us the Celtic-pop tone of "Riverdance" as a whole is less contrived than its skeptics might think. 

"Riverdance" is the kind of nonlinear show that plays well in the Aladdin's 7,000-seat hybrid of a theater and concert hall. But for the Strip's rare example of an intimate, old-fashioned musical, you have to look to the Flamingo's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" -- a romantic musical-comedy with no step-dancing, but an actual story along with a strong ensemble cast, clever wordplay, and Broadway-quality costumes and lighting. 

`Mars/Venus' depends on wordplay

And the show keeps getting better, thanks to recent revisions by writer Rita Abrams and director David Bell. If this really were Broadway, previews would have accommodated this process. But the musical hit the ground running in early October after just three weeks of rehearsal and had to work out the kinks later.

A few funny lines got lost in the process, but all other changes are for the better. There's a new opening song, "Celebrate the Wonder," which retains the clever visual idea of literalizing John Gray's book title.

The lead couple (Mark W. Smith and Janien Massé) are still seen on their respective planets before shedding their spacesuits and heading to Earth. But the opening now gets to the point in shorter, punchier fashion.

Likewise, the prolific Abrams realized that a song toward the end ("Different World") was one song too many, at least until it's time to expand the show for theaters that allow an intermission. She replaced it with a reprise of the standout tune, "One in a Million," and later adds an encore of the gospel-flavored "Live in Love" -- certainly no crime when audiences are hearing the songs for the first time.

A dream sequence with the cast in funny animal costumes still seems like it drifted in from another production, but gets belly laughs for its visual appeal. And it's balanced now by new dialogue scenes that better establish the romantic leads as real people and a new song for Massé ("Skeptical of Love"): "I'm what is known as a piece of work," she sings.

The musical is still a sentimental, occasionally too-cute confection that has about as much to do with self-help as "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- from which it lifted the visual tone and authoritative narrator -- does with get-ahead books.

But it's nonetheless a first-class package, presented with class that you don't often see on the Strip. If you were holding off to see it before, you did the right thing. But if you're still waiting, the show has eliminated most of your reasons.