Chicago Theatre Review
Skating on Thin Ice
Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera – Underscore Theatre
Back in 1994 one of the biggest scandals in the sporting world occurred between two rival Olympic ice skaters. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were both competing for a gold medal at the US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit when an unknown thug entered the arena and whacked Miss Kerrigan in the knee with a police baton. It shocked and saddened the nation that someone could be so cruel to this sweetly innocent and accomplished athlete; the blame for this incident pointed toward Nancy’s competitor, Tonya Harding. Miss Harding was merely sentenced to probation for her part in this heartless attack, and both ladies went on to compete in the Winter Olympics later that year in Lillehammer, Norway.
This show features music by award-winning film and theatre composer, Michael Teoli, with a book and lyrics by novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Elizabeth Searle. The theatrical piece was inspired by one of Searle’s own books, Celebrities in Disgrace. This rock opera, which feels somewhat inspired by Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” opens at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. It then flashes back to 1980’s Oregon and Massachusetts, where Tonya and Nancy individually began their training. We watch as, thanks to uncontrollable media coverage and some meddling by both of their mothers, the girls’ rivalry grows and festers.
The story then takes us to the 1991 United States Skating Championships in Minneapolis, as well as to the 1992 World Championships in Oakland and the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. We eventually witness the famous, brutally horrific event at the Detroit Championships, as well as the following trial and court appearances by the men responsible for committing the crime. From there we witness a lot of soul-searching by everyone involved, leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, where broken ice skate laces caused Tonya to break down and Nancy settled for the silver medal.
The musical focuses on these two young women, pushed by their stage mamas, who allow jealousy, unbridled ambition and an overwhelming need to be the best to dominate their lives. The story is worth telling, however the music, at least as it’s presented in Underscore’s very slick production, is often the problem. Director/choreographer Jon Martinez has driven his cast to perform at a remarkably high-pitched level, with most of the scenes skating by at breakneck speed. His choreography is sharp and clever, often humorously utilizing the muscles of his male ensemble to enable Tonya and Nancy to execute their salchows, axels and triple lutzes.
However, musical director Aaron Benham’s talented, onstage band too often overpowers his accomplished vocalists. There are vast sections of the score where the band totally overwhelms the singers, making the lyrics unintelligible. It starts with the opening number, “Three and a Half Minutes,” and continues through to the finale, “It Was Me.” In between there are a few quieter ballads, particularly Jeff Gillooly’s beautifully sung and self-accompanied musical monologue, “When You Wake Up Sleeping in Your Car in Estacada.” The problem could be fixed if the sound engineer would simply listen to the relationship between the singers and the electronic accompaniment and modulate the microphones. As of now the imbalance almost ruins this production.
What it doesn’t ruin is the abundance of sheer talent in this show. As Tonya Harding, Amanda Horvath (“Murder Ballad”) is stunning. She not only physically resembles Miss Harding, but she once again demonstrates to Chicago audiences the sheer star power within this petite, blond beauty. Ms. Horvath nicely shows the guilt and unstoppable ambition of her character, while singing and dancing up a storm. She’s matched by lovely, talented powerhouse singer Courtney Mack (“Heathers: the Musical”), as American Sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan. Again, Ms. Mack looks so much like Miss Kerrigan that audiences will believe they’re seeing a replay of those Olympic performances. Ms. Mack inhabits all of Kerrigan’s self-doubt and the drive to make her mother happy that America never really saw. Costumed with finesse by Virginia Varland, these two brilliant actresses deservedly earn their standing ovations.
Handsome, musically talented Justin Adair (a major Chicago talent and often the star of many recent Light Opera Works productions) is delightfully roguish and foulmouthed as the manipulative Jeff Gillooly, Tanya Harding’s bad-boy boyfriend. Other sterling performances come from the mega-talented Veronica Garza, chewing up the scenery as the mother of both Harding and Kerrigan. Playing matriarchs from two divergent social classes, each obsessed with pushing her own daughter toward Olympic gold, Ms. Garza has a field day and is exciting and unstoppable. As one of her characters comments, Mama Rose had nothing on her. Caleb Baze is dynamic and charismatic as the show’s narrator; Grahame Hawley and Vasily Deris are talented and terrifying as villains Shane Stant and Shawn Echardt. And Genevieve Perrino’s Oksana Baiul, Mari Uchida’s Kristi Yamaguchi and Tyler Symone’s Surya Bonaly are all winners on ice in this production.
This news story that rocked the Olympic world is brought to life in a colorful, energetic and often campy production that nicely lends itself to National Enquirer parody. The rock opera format, like a pair of well-fitting skates, is especially tailor-made for this tale of determination, jealousy and greed. However, despite all the talent and hard work behind this production, without the proper balance between accompaniment and cast, audiences will unfortunately find this 90-minute musical is skating on thin ice.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 28-December 30 by Underscore Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Theater Wit box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.