Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review: Kneewhack: On Stage!

America loves a scandal. When drama hits popular culture, it instantly gets etched into our mental database. And the 90s wre no stranger to drama. In 1994, two American Olympians rose to infamy in a way unimaginable. Their names were Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. In Tonya & Nancy: the Rock Opera, the dueling ice divas are given the attempted parody treatment like the spectacle it was.
With book and lyrics by Elizabeth Searle and music and additional lyrics by Michael Teoli, Tonya & Nancy charts the rise and fall of the 90s insta-icons. Setting the tone with an instant 90s infused keyboard and costumes sadly reminiscent of the fashion faux pas we used to know, Searle and Teoli get us ready for what should be an evening of nonstop laughter and thrills. Instead, we get material that is clearly much funnier to the creative team than it is to the general audience. The way Searle presented the material was via dual stories about rivals who rarely come toe-pick to toe-pick on stage. It’s factually accurate. The rivalry may have been media coerced, but dramatically it was bland. The situation itself is comedic and destined for a dramatic take off, but Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera isn’t much of an opera, more like an operetta. But I suppose Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Operetta doesn’t have the same ring to it. Regardless of the definitions, the dialogue by Searle was a bit drab. She hit the points she needed to but lacked the comedic oomph that could have made this an incredible parody. With some strong actors to lampoon their real life characters, there were shades of larger than life personalities. Tonya was the rough and tough bad girl. Jeff Gillooly was an incredible douchebag. Tonya’s mom got the outspoken country bumpkin while Nancy’s mom got mocked for her blindness. But finding a character trait for Nancy never happened. Nancy was the “straight man” in the comedy sketch and it simply didn’t land. There was nothing funny about her and in a musical where comedy allows the personality to shine, Nancy came across as the secondary character rather than an equal. Fact checking is always crucial when working with real life material. Going into this show, the moment the audience is waiting for is the musicalization of Kerrigan’s infamous post whack “Why”. But Searle and Teoli added another word that was not featured in the Kerrigan videos. “Why” turned into “Why Me?” and somehow, it made the moment, which was just a blip in the show, feel false. The score by Michael Teoli was rock-lite at best. There were certainly some hard-hitting numbers but the rock vibe didn’t always come through. Teoli did, however, cleverly introduce some sounds the styles from the era of the skaters. While the story, nearly 20 years later, is clearly evading time, allowing the period to shine through was a smart touch. There were certain songs that didn’t seem to fit the vocal strengths of his companies. Whether it was a bad key or notes in the rafters,
photo by Robert Puskar
With Tonya getting the bulk of the good material, a star was bolted to the top of the podium. Tracy McDowell was sensational as the bad girl. McDowell discovered a wonderful demeanor that made Tonya a grand character. Nancy Kerrigan may have been America's sweetheart but McDowell's Tonya won hearts of the audience. Liz McCartney as Mom received some of the largest laughs of the night. And deservedly so. McCartney was on point keeping pace with the many character swaps. Jenna Leigh Green had the least material to work with. And it was unfortunate. What Green did have did not showcase her talent whatsoever. With hopes of having an opera vibe, the chorus played a major role in the staging of the show, playing an abundance of parts. Two members of the chorus stood out for their stunning work. Ryan J. MacConnell nailed the comedic aspect of the show and wowed with his beautiful ballet. Heidi Friese not only was a brilliant dancer as well, she was a dead-on wringer for Ukrainian ice princess Oksana Baiul. Almost terrifyingly so. The moment she came out pink outfit, the audience, who remembers the other cog in the drama, knew exactly who she was supposed to be.
Director David Alpert had an extraordinary task in discovering how exactly to play this piece. To get the audience in the 94 Olympic mood, he has international flags for all to wave. He highlights the moments and aura of the decade. But with the material as a possible hindrance, Alpert is stuck in the middle of laugh out loud voices and sight gags a minute comedy and this show is only funny because the situation is ridiculous, thus causing the middle ground to feel confused. When he did hit the laugh out loud moments, like the slow-motion replay, they were the strongest. Having Liz McCartney expertly play both Nancy and Tonya’s mom was hilarious. But the device of one actress-two characters at once has been done before, and done better. Recently, reference The Toxic Avenger and the show stopping Nancy Opel. While it did bring in the laughs during “This Is It”, it was inevitable with Alpert’s staging that it was coming. To bring Tonya and Nancy to stage, finding a movement vocabulary was essential. How do you skate on stage? Choreographer Marc Kimelman did a magnificent job at discovering just how. His use of ballet was simply stunning. As this was intended for comedic purposes, though you have to wonder what the comedic option would have looked like. I’m sure Disney has some leftover heelies from their failed attempt at swimming on stage. Costume Designer Vanessa Leuck’s integral role was to instantly transport the audience back into the moment. Leuck, for the most part, recreated the iconic skating outfits of Harding, Kerrigan, and Co. From Kerrigan’s pure white leotard to Oksana’s pink, it matched. With the joke being Kerrigan’s beautiful designer ware compared to Harding’s junk, Leuck nailed it, with one small exception in Harding’s 1994 Olympics costume. With that moment so engrained in our minds forever, just the color being off was disappointing.
America will never forget Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. You can thank ESPN’s "30 for 30" for airing their special this year. And that’s why it’s inevitable you’ll be seeing more of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera. But before the next iteration, discovering just exactly this piece wants to be will be essential for success. As it stands now, it may be forgotten, just like you forgot there was a rare Winter Olympics in both 1992 and 1994.