Back in the 1970s, after Peggy Fleming went professional, she became the featured skater in the Ice Capades, the Ice Follies and, eventually, her own performing troupe. I have dim memories of seeing her -- a brunette vision in glitz gliding across the ice at the old Boston Garden between production numbers with Vegas props and blade-shod chorines. But how fortunate the children who got to see Stars on Ice at the Kiel Center -- there was a constellation of nothing but medal-winning talent on the ice, beautifully lit and (for the most part) elegantly costumed. Producer/star Scott Hamilton (whose list of Olympic medals, national and world awards is way too lengthy for these parentheses) wrote in his memoir, Landing It, that he devised the show as "a small company that emphasized skating, not kiddie entertainment."
And there was skating aplenty, by a cast of literally Olympian proportions, playing to a well-packed house. Individual skaters include Hamilton, Ilia Kulik, Steven Cousins, Kurt Browning, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Ekaterina Gordeeva, Lu Chen and pairs Elena Bechke and Denis Petrov, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Renée Roca and Gorsha Sur. I can't think of any other sport or art form (with the exception of chess) where you'll find virtually all the top performers under the same roof -- and stretching their styles, like skating pairs or trying physical comedy. Lipinski showed a hitherto-unseen wistful side in her duo with the great Browning in a jazz-scat number (sung in French by L'Orchestre Moderne), "Dada Je Suis." Kulik, he of the quadruple turn in the last Olympics, turned the rap number "Baseball Cap" into a sleight-of-hand and blade. In short, the solo turns were all tremendous, but it was during the pairs skating that you heard the audience's collective intake of breath
This trio of duos performed thrilling pas de deux that defied gravity, physics and good sense, such as when Bechke allowed Petrov not to only hold her aloft but to flip her upside down during "Czardas," an exciting instrumental folksong with a gradually accelerating pace. Meno and Sand skated to Chris Isaak's dirty-blues tribute to Howlin' Wolf's style, "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," and used the admonitory refrain for their spectacular lifts and leg-swinging moves. Speaking of integrating words, music and beat, classical and soft rock worked best for these routines -- the syncopation of hip-hop (or post-hop, such as Lipinski's unremarkable turn to Christina Aguilera's bland "Genie in a Bottle") is antithetical to the graceful, elongated pace of skating vs. club-dancing. Yamaguchi soaring over the ice in a grand jeté to the word "bridge" in the Simon and Garfunkel "Bridge over Troubled Water" number (part of a really charming S&G medley) was smart. Mincing and posturing with Lu Chen to "Jazzin'" by Kristine W was merely cute.
Ah, the "C" word. As enjoyable as televised skating is, the female participants are still being sized up for qualities stale and sexist. Here, the women could be, well, women, tough-minded and defiant. And the men could explore their clownish sides, as in Browning's ongoing turn as a vague and easily delighted Harpo Marx-like clown looking for a valise, or Hamilton's tour de force in the closing number as a ballet dancer with delusions of Douglas Fairbanks. But no matter what persona was on view, the skating was always stunning and the byproduct, of course, was that the kiddies were entertained.