Kerrigan, Harding get 'rock opera' treatment

Musical delves into rivalry between two skaters

Kristen Lee Sergeant plays Nancy Kerrigan in <i>Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera</i>
Kristen Lee Sergeant plays Nancy Kerrigan in Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera (Robert Pushkar)


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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to
(07/20/2011) - The most notorious incident in skating history has made its way to the stage, with plenty of glitter, spandex, and rock anthems thrown in. Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera is playing this week at Club Oberon in Cambridge, Mass. The show, based on the events surrounding the attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. championships, is an adaptation of an earlier version, Tonya and Nancy: The Opera. Both were written by Elizabeth Searle.

"For six years I've been working on various versions of the show, and people still want to talk about Tonya and Nancy," Searle told She said that she was a figure skating fan long before 1994.

"It's the only sport I really follow passionately," she said. "I remember just crying when I saw Midori Ito at the Olympics. When I was a little girl I loved Dorothy Hamill and Janet Lynn. I love the combination of the glamor, the grace, and the drama."

Of the millions who followed the media circus that was skating in 1994, there can't have been many whose first thought was, "Opera!" Searle explained how she made the connection.

"It was so dramatic," she said. "I was so caught up in it. The human emotions in the story were so raw. The jealousy, the desire to win no matter what, the anger you can feel at a rival, and the sense of being in disgrace. The story just fascinated me and the gripping event of the skate-off -- I was kneeling by the radio speakers in our living room as Nancy skated, just the idea of how much pressure both girls were under."

The show fills every corner of the small club/theater, and even spills out onto the street and beyond the opening and closing numbers. As theatergoers arrive, "reporters" push past them, shouting "Tonya! Tonya!" The actress who plays Harding walks by on the street, flanked by "Jeff Gillooly" and hounded by paparazzi. Her "mother" loudly disses "Kerrigan," who enters the theater next, chased by reporters in her turn.

Inside, a DJ plays appropriate tunes ("One Way or Another," "Jump," "Girls, girls, girls") while dancers clad in '80s glam gyrate on platforms. The actors, in character, mingle with the audience; Tonya's mother sat at our table and talked to us for a few minutes. Eventually the music, played by a tight, professional rock band, goes live, and the show gets underway with the entrance of Tonya and Nancy, in skating costumes and warm-up jackets, stretching as they sing "Three and a Half Minutes." (Which is odd, given that ladies' free skates were four minutes in the 1990s, as they are today).

Although the show begins in 1991 and continues a bit past 1994, it is principally about the media frenzy surrounding the bizarre and horrifying attack. It's all stylized and surreal, as it really has to be. Searle and director Janet Roston don't just play the story for laughs; both Tonya and Nancy are portrayed as somewhat sympathetic, although cartoonish, characters.

Roston makes great use of the smallish space. Actors move through the audience, sing from every corner of the room and occasionally climb over the balcony and sing standing on tables. We were taken by surprise more than once as an actor jumped onto our table for a number.

Kristen Lee Sergeant is the spitting image of Kerrigan, and petite Darcie Champagne comes pretty close to Harding, apart from a distracting wig. Sergeant boasts a sweet, operatic soprano with a lot of power up top, and Champagne, also a fine singer, belts out Tonya's music with accuracy and energy. The actresses wear skating dresses throughout, although Tonya changes into a gown for her wedding to Jeff Gillooly. Johnny Blazes, playing Mrs. Harding (and Mrs. Kerrigan in one scene), and James Lynch, as Gillooly, are both nasty and hilarious. Timothy Lawton, as a buffoonish Shawn Eckhardt, plays it broad and very funny.

The small ensemble of excellent dancers portrays a crowd of reporters for much of the show, but sometimes turns into skaters -- their costumes are a little more outré than real skating costumes, but not by much.

For the many scenes of practice and competition, Tonya and Nancy act out skating poses as cast members push them on rolling platforms. It's both ridiculous and strangely effective, although Nancy starts each program by pumping her arms like a hockey player. Skater and performer Lee David Skunes worked with Sergeant and Champagne and they capture a number of trademark poses. A few details are almost eerie, like Tonya coughing and puffing at her inhaler, and some lines are taken straight from 1994 news stories.

The music, all rock and mostly very loud, was composed, arranged and conducted by Michael Teoli. "If Not for Nancy," sung by Tonya and her mother, is a particularly effective number.

Towards the end of the show, an aerialist descends from the ceiling, wearing a dress reminiscent of Kerrigan's gold Olympics costume and bringing a breath of the true beauty of the sport. And then the mirror ball starts spinning, glitter drops from the ceiling and the show ends with a glam-fest -- and that's part of the sport too, of course.

Tickets are still available for tonight and Thursday; shows are at 7:30 pm and 10 pm at Club Oberon in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. 18-and-over only. For tickets, call Ovationtix at 866-811-4111, or visit for more information.