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Ice Capades

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I know why I did it. I love figure skating. My parents took me to my first ice show when I was 11 years old, and I was quickly hooked on the sheer spectacle of it--what seemed like miles of ermine, feathers, spangles and beads arrayed across a sheet of glistening ice. Those were just the trimmings, of course; the skaters--with their effortless spinning and jumping--were the centerpiece, skaters dramatically framed in follow-spots as they glided to soaring music that I immediately recognized from my Broadway cast recordings.

These were some of the memories I had in mind last week as I headed out to the Rosemont Horizon to sit directly beneath the O'Hare flight path and watch the 51st edition of the Ice Capades. The Ice Capades used to be one of three general interest ice shows traveling around America. The other two--Holiday on Ice and the Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies--no longer tour the U.S., which makes the Ice Capades the last of a kind (not counting niche shows such as Disney on Ice or Dorothy Hamill's Nutcracker on Ice). The Ice Capades is produced by Tom Scallen, a gray-haired, bespectacled man who, as his program bio boasts, is the "Ziegfeld of the ice," the only ice impresario to have headed all three of the major shows.

I had not seen the Ice Capades for a long time. Recently I've been going instead to the high-toned skating shows that have proliferated to showcase the talents of world and Olympic champions such as Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, and Katarina Witt. Geared toward the figure-skating aficionado, these presentations eschew much of the glitz of the traditional ice show to focus on pure artistry and athleticism. Skaters such as Boitano and Hamilton have said repeatedly that the Ice Capades seem no longer to serve the needs of serious skaters who want to share their talent with an audience as professionals, and the advertising for this show demonstrated what they mean. In the print ads the Simpsons of TV fame and that doll Barbie crowded out a note announcing a special guest appearance by Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley. As I motored north I wondered: was this going to be an evening about skating or indulging children?

My question was at least partly answered when I saw the crowd pouring into the Horizon on an incredibly balmy March evening. Many of the casually dressed adults milling about the arena clutched the tiniest of tots in their arms, kids who normally would have been tucked into bed by the 7:30 curtain time, I thought. When I got inside and reached my seat, I found a mother with a toddler on her lap seated directly behind me. The show had not even begun, but the wee lass already was lunging forward, issuing shrieks within inches of my ear.

Trying without much success to ignore the noise, I opened the Ice Capades souvenir program to see what was in store. A blast of color greeted me, with flashy photography of skaters in action practically jumping off of every page. Each of the show's production numbers merited a two-page spread: "Metropolis in Heat," in which we the audience were invited to "meet the skating citizens of our rhythm nation"; and "Barbie at the Beach," which promised "really good vibrations with Barbie and her gang."

The lights dimmed and the show was on. All I really remember of those first few moments was the din of a rock score that blasted through the arena. Skaters were on the ice, for sure, but it was the pounding music that predominated. What struck my eye not too far into the show was the pedestrian costuming. The richly draped ermine and billowy feathers of the ice spectaculars of my youth had given way to scanty costumes that looked serviceable but cheap.

The choreography, by Sarah Kawahara, skimped on the dynamic jumps and intricate footwork that can make figure skating such a joy to watch. Perhaps Kawahara was hamstrung by the abilities of her star performers, none of whose credentials came close to matching special guest Manley's Olympic medal. When Manley took to the ice in the second act to perform a short but superbly executed solo routine to a lovely ballad called "Someone Like You," it was apparent how mediocre or worse the rest of the skating had been. But the distinction appeared lost on most of those watching Manley, for whom the applause was far from thunderous. The audience seemed to prefer the pedestrian skaters who shamelessly employed a variety of hand gestures--and in one instance a sign with the word "more" on it--to coax ever louder rounds of applause. This is a ploy one hopes will be discouraged in future editions of the Ice Capades, but one doubts it.

I won't dwell on Barbie's production number, except to say she looked shockingly tall and even more shockingly skinny than her skating partner Ken. But in an odd sort of way, Barbie's bit, with its suggestion of a waterfront setting and bouncing beach balls, conjured up an appealing innocence lacking in most of the show. From time to time the Simpsons popped up everywhere around the arena to play out comic routines that were forced at best, but nonetheless fired up all the kiddies, especially the one yelping in my ear.

The 51st edition of the Ice Capades ended with a jitterbug salute to the 1940s. The Ice Capettes, a line of precision skaters not unlike those famed Radio City Rockettes, strutted back and forth in a routine far less precise than some I had enjoyed in my youth. Then came the final parade of stars and a burst of giant sparklers, and the Ice Capades was over. I raced for the exit, hoping to beat the crowd, but got stuck amidst the departing horde, with many of the kids fast asleep in their parents' arms.

As I headed back into the city, I mulled the evening. I was sorry the Ice Capades had not lived up to my memories. Let's be honest, the show hadn't even come close. A form of mass entertainment that once had been both aesthetically pleasing and readily accessible now seemed merely loud and debased. Yet I was glad I went. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time attending theater, orchestral concerts, and ballet, this night at the Ice Capades was an eye-opening opportunity to see something that a large chunk of the American population still goes out of its way to see. Whether to entertain the children or just to get out of the house, who can say? But America is still going to the Ice Capades. I'm not so sure I will be again anytime soon.

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