Who could forget the iconic dancers of “Riverdance” or Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance”? The Irish theatrical productions captivated folks in the mid ‘90s and are still touring today.
ROCKING TRADITION: Irish dancers like Ashley Smith-Wallace (above) marry traditional Irish dance, songs and rock. Courtesy photo.
“Obviously ‘Riverdance’ was fantastic, and it put Irish dancing on the map,” observes choreographer and dancer Scott Doherty, who at one time toured with the famed production. “But it’s been over 20 years now . . . and the one thing I learned talking to fans all around the world was that people wanted more.”
Enter: “Rockin’ Road to Dublin.” Doherty and co-creator Chris Smith’s founded a rock ‘n’ roll modernization of beloved Irish song and dance. This is no “Riverdance.” Though Doherty admires the showmanship of those famed Irish productions, he sought to create a production that made traditional Irish dance “cool” again.
“We thought what’s cooler than rock ‘n’ roll?” he says. “So we thought we’d have a hint of what everyone loves about Irish dance but update it with electric guitar, costumes, a big light show … we basically don’t want to change the game, we just want to keep it relevant.”
Doherty grew up with his Irish family in Boston and loved pop and rock culture of the time; Aerosmith, Guns ‘n’ Roses and high-energy stadium rock. He loved Irish performances, too—just not the persona the dance troupes put forward. “I’ve dreamt of making a show since I was about 10 and I kind of pictured it being rock ‘n’ roll, without even realizing it was rock ‘n’ roll,” he tells. “I just wanted there to be cool costumes and electric guitars . . . Once I met Chris and we hit it off, we realized we both had similar ideas. He’s more of the music guy and I’m more the dance guy; it morphed into rock ‘n’ roll without us even realizing it.”
From conceptualization to fruition, the whole process took about two to three years. Their first show launched in 2014. “We booked a theater without having any idea of how we were going to pull it off,” Doherty admits with a laugh. “But we booked that theater to give us a deadline—a year later we debuted the show.”
Doherty, who also is a lead dancer for “Rockin’ Road”—which is directed by Jeff Whiting and orchestrated by Brent Frederick—says the Irish dance world is a lot smaller than imaginable. So when it came to tapping into the industry’s top movers and shakers—like three-time world champion Ashley Smith-Wallace—he picked up the phone.
“I called up all of my best friends who are literally the best dancers in the world,” he says matter of factly. “If I could put together a dream team, literally, this is it. It’s probably the best cast any audience could ever see.”
While Doherty focuses on dance, Smith (also lead percussionist) spearheads the process of developing and implementing music for the show. Yet, they collaborate on selections to play. For Doherty, “A Nation Once Again,” which closes the show, was a no brainer. With his own family’s Irish background, they often attended heritage events; “A Nation Once Again” is a part of Doherty’s life soundtrack. Like American anthems seem to speak to U.S. citizens, “A Nation Once Again” is a rallying cry for Ireland. Yet, Doherty always thought a bigger sound was missing, even a bigger band.
“What’s amazing with most Irish songs is you can turn any of them into this epic song,” he continues. “It’s just finding ones that, well, I don’t want to say ‘deserve’ that, but there are songs we listen and dance to you just want to hear with a big full band. . . . I’m really proud of ‘A Nation Once Again’ because it really deserves more. That’s how I feel about most of the songs in the show.”
Irish music played by a rock band is (surprisingly) easier to choreograph, too. The music naturally has many intricacies. Much like Irish music, rock ‘n’ roll is driven by rhythm. Thus it’s a complementary fusion.
“Once we got ourselves into this I thought, ‘Oh, boy! How am I going to choreograph all of this?’” Doherty admits. “It actually was an easy marriage . . . I just let the music lead me.”
Though not night by night, Doherty and Smith switch out songs and routines before they begin each tour. They may change up song order, take some out or add new choreography and costumes. It keeps the show fresh for cities that have hosted in the past.
“It’s never the same show,” Doherty confirms. “At the same time, if someone who comes back, they want to see parts of why they loved it in the first place. It’s a balance we’re trying to have with in the first place, for fans of traditional Irish elements they know and love, but with things they’ve never seen.”
One of the most recent additions is a slow tune in Gaelic, “Mo Ghile Mear” (“My Gallant Darling”). Originally written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill in the 18th century, Smith has rearranged it with a seven-piece band and lead vocalists, Megan Lynn Browning and Esteban Suero. There’s also an instrumental number, “Fiddler’s Despair,” that the show’s fiddlers are amping up quite nicely.
“The song is incredible and I actually can’t wait to hear our band play it live,” Doherty says. “We can find an old Irish tune that’s never been done on anything more than a fiddle and instantly modernize it.”
No song has been left unturned in “Rockin’ Road.” Pretty much Doherty and Smith’s Irish song wishlists have been fulfilled. Still, they always look for more. “Even when we were building the tour for 2018, there were songs we came across we immediately were like, ‘Oh, my God! We have to include it,’” he says. “We added them. Things like that are going to happen every time we go on tour.”
“Rockin’ Road to Dublin” will continue to evolve as it traverses the world, but first it’s stopping in our port city Monday night.