REVIEW: Whack! (Gorilla Tango)

“Whack!” needs work to get its licks in

 

Gorilla Tango Theatre presents:

Whack! The Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story

written and directed by Kelly Williams
thru February 25th (more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Just what is it with our culture’s renewed fascination about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? The current musical production on at Gorilla Tango Theatre is just the tip of the iceberg. A rock opera about their infamous 1994 Olympic rivalry premiered in Portland in 2008 and another production is scheduled for this year in Los Angeles; in 2008, then-candidate Obama told the press he would not “pull a Tonya Harding” on Hilary Clinton in the run up to the Democratic Convention; and the phrase quickly became used by Dem insiders to forecast Hilary’s options pursuing the presidential nomination.

Who would have guessed the revival of a 15 year-old, nearly forgotten struggle for Olympic gold?

On the other hand, as the opening number, “Bitches On Ice,” would suggest, there’s a certain eternal appeal to dueling women in dainty outfits. The audience wants to see a catfight between two aspiring ice princesses precisely because they’re suppose to be polite little ladies. Writer and director Kelly Williams further exploits the (presumed) class differences between Nancy and Tonya in her new show, Whack! The Tony Harding & Nancy Kerrigan Story, a Karaoke Musicalabout which much could be deconstructed.

But first, the lyricists for Whack! are some very clever people. In fact, the wittiness in the songs far outshines the dialogue, especially at the start. If there’s a rewrite in this show’s future, let it sharpen up spoken lines and leave jaunty works like “Majorsubcutaneousepiduralhematoma” well enough alone. Of course, it helps that they’ve subversively set the lyrics to the Disney movie music canon, so that shiny, happy crowd-pleasers like “Be My Guest” get transformed to “I Love Breasts”—an easy improvement over the original.

It’s the run-up to the Lillehammer Olympics. According to Whack!’s storyline, Nancy Kerrigan (Leslie Nesbitt) is nothing other than an evil skating genius, planning to use her Olympic gold victory to establish (or is that re-establish?) WASP dominance. “Mother, how would you feel if all of Asia was trying to ruin my life?” Nancy says, referring to Michele Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Oksana Baiul. Never mind that two of the above are Asian-American competitors. She’s not about to let white trash Tonya Harding (Cassandra Cushman) keep her from total white upper middle class victory. For her part, Tonya is just striving to lift herself out of the depths of her trailer park existence.

Both characters would be nothing without their mothers–Nancy’s Blind Mom, played hilariously by Carry Bain, and Tonya’s Drunk Momma (Natalie Kossar ) form the perfect pair of bookends to their emotionally deformed daughters. Kossar takes some time to warm up to her role, but once there she slays with lines like, “Make Momma a pizza,” and “Shh! You’ll scare the whiskey away.”

The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which takes some time to get there, too. One thing about rowdy, schlock musical comedies: not beginning with high energy is death to the production. Hopefully, that flaw will be rectified in the course of the run, because once fired up, the show is much funnier. Spiro Zafiropoulos, as Tonya’s ex-husband-live-in-boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, shows the kind of professional steadiness that the rest of the conspiracy against Nancy could learn from. But he can’t bring the plot to wicked fulfillment all by himself.

As for Nesbit and Cushman, each takes the stage well alone, whether envisioning world domination or plaintively wishing to get out from under a drunken parent’s domination. But once onstage together, the sparks don’t fly equal to expectations that have been built up in the audience. Since this is a musical comedy, not a history lesson, it’s a little astonishing that more liberties aren’t taken with their exchanges. In other words, go wild, ladies. This is what we’ve paid our tickets for.

As for the class differences that Williams expounds on and exploits between Tonya and Nancy, I hope that by now most people are aware that the real Nancy Kerrigan comes from an equally blue-collar background. It’s a different tale to tell, two blue-collar girls both engaging in an aspirational struggle–rather than setting up yet another “upper class vs. blue collar” dynamic. Perhaps it all depends on where you want to get your comedy.

Rating: ★½

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: