"Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera" Review- Underscore Theatre Company reprises the skating scandal/media frenzy in a song and dance version at Theater Wit

“Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera”, by Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli, is currently in production by Underscore Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through December 30. Directed and choreographed by Jon Martinez, and starring Amanda Horvath as Tonya Harding and Courtney Mack as Nancy Kerrigan, with a strong co-starring and supporting cast, this was a funny, savvy, skilfull and enjoyable romp.

Amanda Horvath and Courtney Mack with Genevieve Perrin, Vasily Deris, Caleb Baze, Graham Hawley and Mari Uchida

 

It carries the audience on a swift ride through the events surrounding the media coverage of the catastrophic rivalry between these world-class skaters, the alleged story behind the story, and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. The music was catchy, the costumes divine, the divas singing first rate, and the dancing high quality, but either the acoustics, the level of performance or the amping was a real source of frustration, because it was often very difficult to hear what were obviously choice lyrics.

Amanda Horvath and Courtney Mack

 There were no real insights given here about the problem that developed between these women which culminated in a feeding frenzy of scandal in 1994 when a thug connected to Harding tried to break Kerrigan’s leg with a collapsible baton The media framed the conflict 3 years earlier on, famously getting it wrong in this sense: neither was bound for Olympic gold; both of these skaters were ultimately bested by a girl from Ukraine, Oksana Baiul, who is also mocked in this performance. Much was made of the hardscrabble life Harding led, but "in real life" Baiul was repeatedly and thoroughly orphaned, losing her parents, grandparents and trainer long before she got to Liljehammer- and  she still won the gold handily. It goes without saying that no woman- Kerrigan included- could live up to the clichéd moniker “America’s Princess”.

Courtney Mack with the cast of Underscore Theatre Comany's Chicago premiere of Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera

  Probably no-one but the perpetrators will ever know the answer to the central question: was Tonya Harding aware of the plot hatched by her ex-husband, her bodyguard, and a hireling to cripple her supposed Olympic rival, Nancy Kerrigan? For her “obstruction of justice” surrounding the events, she was fined and sentenced to community service and probation. She was also stripped of titles, rank, and eligibility to skate or coach by the U.S Figure Skating Association. Kerrigan, whose much-lauded costumes were designed by Vera Wang, a famed wedding-dress couturier, retired from amateur skating after the Olympics.  However, the play does offer us a new spin about the charachter of the mothers of these contenders. In a stroke of absolute brilliance, both moms are played by the same actor, Veronica Garza, whose arch portrayal goes a long way towards projecting the notion that both Tonya and Nancy were smothered by stage mothering.

Genevieve Perrin, Vasily Deris, Amanda Horvath, Graham Hawley, Caleb Baze, Tyler Symone, and Mari Uchida

 It can be said that the “opera” didn’t tell “the whole story”- feminists have long taken umbrage with the sexist and infantilizing portrayal of women skating athletes. However, why is it the duty of a work of art to advance any polarized theme? This was a mockery of a mockery- a send-up of the media circus, and, if only by omitting the richer details of their lives, which, after all, need not be the subject of any more scrutiny, it does a fine job of demonstrating just how crazy it all was. Let’s not forget, these women had a great deal in common. They pursued their dreams at the price of their childhood, they were both over- simplistically portrayed by the press, who delighted in their joint and several tragedies, and they both ultimately failed to capture the big prize.

Justin Adair and Courtney Mack in Underscore Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera

The two lead actors did a splendid job portraying the leading ladies. Amanda Horvath, in particular, almost seemed to channel Tonya Harding- she even managed to eerily resemble the blonde pony-tailed Oregonian, and Courtney Mack played Kerrigan with compassion and verve. Justin Adair as the more than double-faced Jeff Gillooly, sometime husband and join–the-club emotional abuser of Harding, was hilariously smarming in his singing, dancing, guitar playing and strutting; also, he could be heard above the music. Vasily Deris as Andrew and bodyguard Shawn Echardt was an absolute sinister/sexy/gut bustingly funny joy. Genevieve Perrino as Heidi and Oksana Baiul seemed to hold the cast together with unflagging energy and a real gift for mimicry. Kudos to Virginia Varland for the delightful true-to-life costumes.

Graham Hawley, Vasily Deris, Courtney Mack and Tyler Symone with the cast of Underscore Tjeatre Company's Chicago premiere of Tonya and Nancy:The Rock Opera

 The production was a lot of fun and is recommended.

All photos by Evan Hanover

For more information about the play and Underscore Theatre Company, go to www.underscoretheatre.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

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