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BLADES OF GLORY : Dorothy Hamill Puts a Spin on Her Ice Capades by Focusing on World-Class Skating

October 20, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

Equipped with 30 years of skating experience and the backing of theater, dance and ice show professionals, Dorothy Hamill has hit the once-ailing Ice Capades like a Zamboni hits the ice at halftime.

Hamill, whose Dorothy Hamill International purchased the 55-year-old ice show out of bankruptcy in June, 1993, has given the company a new sophistication and elegance. Instead of skating Smurfs and high-tech dazzle, Hamill and her creative team put the focus squarely on high-powered skating and a good story well told, as evidenced by last October's performance at the Anaheim Arena of "Cinderella . . . Frozen in Time," an elegant, mostly mute retelling of the classic fairy tale that featured Hamill in the title role and British pairs champion Andrew Naylor as the prince.

Once they got used to the change, audiences for the company's opening tour reacted positively, said Hamill, who presents her newest show, "Hansel, Gretel, the Witch and the Cat" at the Anaheim Arena through Sunday. (The show moves to the Forum in Los Angeles Wednesday through Oct. 30, and the San Diego Sports Arena Nov. 3 through 6.)

"I must say that last year when we made the change, I didn't realize how dramatic it would be," recalled Hamill during a phone interview from Scottsdale, Ariz., where her family and her company are based. "But since I think I've been in every ice show there ever was," she added, laughing ruefully, "I knew in my guts it was time for a change.

"In surveys, people tell us that when they see an ice show, what they're coming to see is the skating, not the biggest and flashiest (effects). So that's what we're giving them, world-class skating."

As well received as "Cinderella . . . " was, however, Hamill admits that it didn't reach very young children the way she would have liked. Aside from a brief opening narration (which was beefed up after the Anaheim run and rerecorded by Lloyd Bridges), "Cinderella . . . " relied chiefly on the skater's movements and acting abilities and a classically inspired musical score to tell the story. It was effective for most older viewers, especially those familiar with live theater and dance, but it apparently left many little kids in the dust.

To remedy this, Hamill said she collaborated with her "Hansel . . . " designer, Tony Award-winner Desmond Heeley, to bring in visuals and characters that would appeal to youngsters. Inspired in part by the 1893 opera by Englebert Humperdinck (that's the original one, not the late-model crooner), the script finds Hansel and Gretel pursued by a witch with a hearty taste for their company, but here she uses more than your basic gingerbread house as a lure. She and her feline sidekick bedazzle the kiddies with a party packed with such storybook celebrities as Goldilocks, her three bears and the three blind mice.

In addition, Hamill and choreographers Tim Murphy and Nathan Birch have added more full-cast dance numbers, with ensemble skaters portraying snowflakes, village children, goblins and bats. Comic skaters Jared Randolph and J. Scott Driscoll, who respectively played a stepsister-in-drag and Buttons in "Cinderella . . .," throw in plenty of physical comedy as the witch and the cat. Jennifer Ito skates the role of Gretel; Alexander Fadeev is Hansel, and Hamill plays the Evening Star, a fairy guardian derived from two other characters in the opera.

"I know from watching my own daughter, once a child gets past about 2 1/2, they don't sit through anything," said Hamill (her daughter Alexandra, 6, has traveled with her on and off for years). "So we put in some of this for the tiny ones, mostly in the second act. The first act is primarily great skating."

World-class skating is still what Dorothy Hamill's Ice Capades is about, maintains Hamill, who won a gold medal in figure skating at the 1976 Winter Olympics. The 38-year-old, who has spent years as a headliner and producer of other ice shows, was able to scout out an international cast of top-flight skaters for her own company. In the coming years, she says, she plans to step out of the performing spotlight to develop original shows for her troupe. (This season, she'll appear in half of "Hansel's . . . " 35-city tour, including all shows in Orange County and L.A.; Simone Grigorescu skates the Evening Star in the other half, which takes in the San Diego dates.)

A former member of the John Curry Skaters, Hamill says that Curry remains one of her primary influences; her casts take part in daily classes that help develop their abilities to work as an ensemble. Curry, who died last year, was internationally recognized for blending the aesthetics of dance with the fluidity and speed of figure skating.

"I was never the great artist that John was, but our goal is to have the same quality in family entertainment," Hamill said. "John's presence is with us every day. This is our way of carrying on his legacy."


What: Dorothy Hamill's Ice Capades' "Hansel, Gretel, the Witch and the Cat."

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