Tonya-Nancy ice drama hits NY stage as rock opera

NEW YORK - It was the knee whack that obsessed millions and turned figure skating into an international tabloid frenzy. Twenty years later, it's coming to the New York stage decked in sequins.

"Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera," tells of the blood, sweat and tears behind the fierce rivalry between elegant figure skating princess Nancy Kerrigan and hard-edged Tonya Harding.

Kerrigan was queen of the ice: the brunette beauty dressed in Vera Wang, a mistress of million-dollar endorsements who personified classy elegance in an image-obsessed sport.

Harding was the gutsy, brash-talking athlete who overcame poverty and an abusive, alcoholic mother to become the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.

When Kerrigan was whacked on the knee in an attack ordered by Harding's ex-husband before the 1994 US championships, the celebrity-gossip world exploded. There had been nothing like it in the sport.

'Dark currents'

"Dark yet perky, is to me the feel of this show," says American novelist Elizabeth Searle, who wrote the libretto about the two women.

"There is all this glittery, sparkly fun... but underneath are all these dark currents and this brutal act, and that to me is a very interesting combination," she told AFP.

The show, billed as "dark comedy done with heart" makes its New York debut Thursday as part of the city's annual Musical Theatre Festival, a spring board for eclectic new, off-Broadway productions.

In the words of director David Alpert, it's not a documentary, but a "fast-paced and thrilling" attempt to tell the story theatrically.

"Don't expect any 'real' ice up there. Plus that wouldn't do so well in a festival... in midtown Manhattan... in July," he told AFP.

It started out as a half-hour chamber opera for a university project, before winning glowing reviews for adaptations in Boston, Los Angeles and Harding's home state Oregon.

"C'mon, a musicalized retelling of the knee whack heard round the world? Do you need any more incentive?" joked Jenna Leigh Green, who plays Nancy, to Playbill.

Searle sees the story as a microcosm of US culture: determination to win at any cost and the fame that comes with success, and notoriety.

"A lot of it is this sense of building up celebrities, knocking them down and watching them fall, which is an all-American obsession."

The whack

"Why, why, why?" shrieked a sobbing Kerrigan after she was clubbed on the leg leaving a practice session in Detroit ahead of the US championships in 1994.

Doctors ruled her out of the competition, which Harding won, before both women were picked to represent the United States at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics just six weeks later.

But as Kerrigan made a full recovery, Harding was hounded by the press and questioned by the FBI, who quickly discovered that her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly ordered the hit on Kerrigan.

In one of the most watched Olympic events of all time, a resplendent Nancy delivered the skate of her career and won silver medal while Tonya broke her lace, and crashed out of the competition.

Kerrigan's supporters felt she was robbed of gold, given to 16-year-old Ukrainian sensation Oksana Baiul, an unheard-of in American eyes.

Back in the States, Harding pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution, and was sentenced to three years' probation and fined more than $160,000.

She admitted to not reporting what she knew about the assault to investigators, saying that Gillooly had threatened her, but always denied any prior knowledge or conspiracy in the attack.

But Nancy's own reputation also took a hit.

After being told an emotional Baiul was reapplying make-up before the medal ceremony, Kerrigan was said to mutter: "She's going to get out of here and cry again, what's the difference?" Taking part in a Disney parade as part of a reported $2 million sponsorship deal, she was caught on camera again, this time complaining to Mickey Mouse: "It's so dumb... I hate it." But the musical doesn't take sides. "I love all my characters," said Searle. "We try to make them both rounded characters, showing their strengths and weaknesses."

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