Everything is better on ice. Otherwise, why would there be touring companies of Anastasia on Ice, Pocahontas on Ice, Toy Story on Ice and now Grease on Ice? The popular phenomenon that is Grease (a production of the stage musical tours eternally; the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta film had a successful re-release after 30 years of television life) apparently wasn't complete until Sandy and Danny and Rizzo laced up ice skates.
Never mind that Grease on Ice sounds like a warning sign you'd see on a frozen pond, or something you'd hear during an Olympic Skaters Discover Card Super Challenge (Dick Button describes Michelle Kwan as she "glides into her triple -- oh no, she hit the grease patch!"), or reminds you of the old joke of the tattooed lady with a map of Greece on her knees (grease on her knees!). Grease on Ice was fate.
Concept: Psycho on Ice. To go with the montage effect, have multiple shower curtains -- at least 10 -- on the ice at once for the first murder. Ten stabbings at once (which are actually 10 skating pairs) with strobe lighting -- should inspire some inventive choreography with multiple death spirals. Probably can't rely on the Hermann score too much; something from Tannhauser might work more effectively. Go easy on the stage blood -- this is a family show. Birds of prey skating around could be both menacing and fun for the kids. Toy-marketing possibilities here.
So what does make something go well on ice? Jerry Bilik directs Grease on Ice and has been the director for Anastasia, Toy Story, Pocahontas and the forthcoming Hercules -- all on ice.
"Music," he answers with the assurance you'd expect of a successful director of big, splashy entertainment vehicles, "and Grease has great music.
"The better the music of the original product, it makes our job easier. The success of the ice show is the skating, and the propelling force for the skaters is the music. When you're working out routines to weaker music, it really gets hard. A good example would be Toy Story -- even though that was a very successful show, we had to use four pieces of music in about 20 different ways to create skating solos."
Concept: Sweeney Todd on Ice. OK, we're taking a risk with the cannibalism, but let's keep it cartoonish. It worked with the Romanovs in Anastasia, right? Anyway, it's Sondheim, which means quality music, though we could add a "Ride of the Valkyries" kind of thing before the first murder. A large company in Victorian dress (a little like Les Miz). A giant barber's razor painted center ice.
An apparent dilemma in adapting a rock & roll musical to an ice show is that although Grease has about it a modicum of cool, figure skaters don't. (Granted, Grease is a mainstream, white-bread vision of '50s cool -- Jack and Neal and Allen aren't scoring reefer and having a menage a trois in the Chelsea Hotel -- but the role of Sandy made even light-pop queen Newton-John seem just a little more down with it.)
Except for Oksana Baiul -- who, admittedly, went a little overboard with the substance abuse -- figure skaters are decidedly uncool. They're the idiot savants of the sporting world (OK, Katarina Witt is another exception). They skate to music with the grace and power of gazelles, but they dance with the nerdish tics of Microsoft executives. Because figure skaters lock themselves in ice houses throughout their childhood and adolescence, the only moves they ever learned were double salchows. They never acquired cool.
Bilik says of his early directorial experience, "The first year I didn't know what I was doing because I couldn't get anyone to understand anything. Then Bob Paul, who was skating director, said, 'Jerry, these guys are athletes.' I've come from a theater and television background and had not really experienced that. They know locker rooms and wrapping their ankles and things like that. Once I got that, I realized that by demonstrating physically and translating everything down to physical movement ... " he trails off, sounding oddly as if he's describing the training of performing seals.
"It was very interesting," he continues. "We had a director working on one of the shows -- I had a lot of trouble with him because he would sit the cast down and start doing motivational speeches about 'Your character is thinking this,' and I would look at them and they had this total blank look on their faces: 'Tell us what to do with our arms.'"
This is why Marlon Brando never became a figure skater.
Concept: A Streetcar Named Desire on Ice. Stanley is athletic, with bulging muscles. A Wagnerian theme accompanies him throughout. Work in a combination of edge jumps with a camel spin when he yells, "Stella!" Blanche (Nancy Kerrigan) is willowy. Long veils and taffeta. Maybe Peggy Fleming would be better for this role: the aging ice queen. "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" should allow for one, final, heroic triple lutz.
Nancy Kerrigan didn't enroll in method-acting classes to play Sandy, either. Says choreographer Barry Lather, who had worked with Kerrigan on routines for her TV specials, "It took a while for it to sink in for her that she's portraying a role."
It was up to director Bilik to present the hard facts. "The first few days were not a lot of fun for either of us," he admits. "I said, 'I hate to tell you this, but you can't be Nancy Kerrigan for these two hours. She is not going to not be Nancy Kerrigan, but she has to think she's not. This transformation into the character was very hard.
"It's quite amazing, because a lot of people have a lot of opinions about her, and they're not all positive. But when she falls into the part she gets into it; she really enjoys herself and forgets herself. Ironically, she hits her jumps. She doesn't worry about them. I told her, 'If you fall, it's not Nancy falling, it's Sandy falling. You have to fall like Sandy would fall and stay in character. It's been very hard for her."
Alas, Kerrigan's travails have been many. Bilik worried whether she would be able to relate to the other skaters (actors? seals?) in the company: "As any celebrity, she's kind of hesitant; you never know if somebody's going to take advantage." Or try to break your kneecaps.
"I keep talking to people in the company to see if she's relating to people. Yes, she comes and sits around and talks with people as opposed to being totally isolated," Bilik says.
Concept: Grease Meets Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth on Ice. Use voice-over narration for this one. Campbell's dead, unfortunately, but someone avuncular is needed -- maybe Cronkite is available. Nancy skates as cheerleader Sandy. Narration about archetypes, about ethereal princess who cannot mature into her full self because she is isolated from the darker forces of her nature. Music: something Wagnerian. Narration about how confrontation with shadow is essential to connect the divided self. This part is tricky: Think Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in Persona. Somehow Sandy meets dark, sinister, greaser-girl figure. Fear and disgust transform to awe and fascination. She has met her dark sister. Transference. Virgin Sandy becomes slut Sandy. Nancy becomes Tonya Harding.
Full company joins "You're the One that I Want."
Grease on Ice comes to Kiel Center at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 29-30.