The Aflac Presents Brian Boitano Skating Spectacular Starring Barry Manilow reviewed by Sweet Talk’s intrepid man on the scene Buckshot Johnson
December 5, 2007, San Francisco.
Brian Boitano, Olympic gold medalist, world champion and Emmy winner, had an ice rink built in the infield of the San Francisco Giant’s home AT&T Park. He called his world champion and gold medalist friends to perform with him. He convinced NBC Sports to film the event for national broadcast later this month. Finally he asked Barry Manilow to sing the live soundtrack to their routines. When this convergence came across my screen I did what any alt-country loving, figure skating ignoramus would. I made a few calls and scored two tickets.
Walking up to the park my plus-one and I played a whispered game of Guess the Allegiance. Preteens in San Rafael Skating Club jackets with dads in tow were dead give aways. As were the retirees with oversized Manilow buttons. But what of the smart set in houndstooth blazers, the well dressed on their iPhones? Were they Jets or Sharks?
No time for answers, the house lights went out. We dashed to our seats just as the laser show began swirling across the empty ice to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” At song’s end the lights went out again. Total darkness. Then a burst of spotlight revealing Boitano at center ice and a burst of sound from Boston’s “Long Time” accompanying his first lap. Atmospheric fog introduced Boitano’s collection of male skaters. They performed a quick intro lap to “Play that Funky Music, White Boy” closing the fun with a robot dance. Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” played out to Dorothy Hamill’s arrival. The fans could be forgiven for thinking Stevie wrote the song for Miss Hamill. Her lap was short and just as whimsical.
Such pageantry was mere prelude to the main event. As Manilow took the stage his smile broadcast on the diamond vision screen in centerfield drove the crowd to shrieks of adoration. The star waited graciously for the noise to die down before raising his mic for “It Never Rains in Southern California.” After growing up to Weir and Zevon’s improvised, geographic nods to the audience – “those D.C. fillies start looking good,” “Ah woo, werewolves of Canton” – I was praying for Manilow to belt out “northern California” in the final chorus. Alas, he’s a purist.
During world champion and Olympic gold medalist Viktor Petrenko’s routine I fell into the age old, existential dilemma: when sitting at a live ice skating spectacular and Barry Manilow concert, whom do you watch? The skater or Manilow? Before my brain burst I decided to watch both, via the tennis match strategy of back and forth. I also decided to applaud the choreographer every time a skater skated near Manilow.
Petrenko’s exit allowed Manilow to welcome Boitano and Hamill with “The Way We Were.” The couple’s routine was tentative at first but picked up verve when they landed their first single Axel. They finished with a side by side Salchow and a toe loop – both singles – before Hamill put her signature exclamation point on the routine with a Hamill camel. This last bit may have happened that way. I just looked up the terms on wikipedia and wrote down a plausible combination.
Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, dancing to Manilow’s cover of the Four Seasons’ biker classic, “My Eyes Adored You” timed their only throw jump of the routine to land with Manilow’s emphatic start to the final chorus. When they nailed it the AT&T crowd rewarded them with a standing ovation. Manilow beamed from stage and kept on singing with one arm aloft.
Now sitting at his piano Manilow greeted Hamill’s next solo with “Weekend in New England.” Boitano was reported to covet this song for his own routine but chivalry prevailed. It is well known in the skating universe that Hamill had long prized the ballad. Her performance was flawless.
Manilow exited for his set break, but the performances continued to the house system, the changes now coming at blurry speed.
Clad in a gangster rap, snowboard outfit David Pelletier did the worm dance, undulating face down across the ice.
Vladamir Besedin and Oleksiy Polischuk turned skating norms and even the laws of nature inside out by performing a (first ever?) men’s synchro routine. Technically men’s synchro isn’t a medal sport. Not yet. But the Besedin/Polischuk will force the IOC to reconsider their archaic rules. Dressed as classical court composers, complete with wigs and frills, the pair waltzed to a proper string quartet. When “Rock Me, Amadeus” replaced the strings they stripped off their shirts revealing tank tops with 6-pack abs silk screened across the front. If you like Falco’s video wait until you see the BesPol interpretation. Theirs included: by far the biggest wipe out of the night; on-ice couples yoga; and a finale with the bigger one throwing the smaller one into a break dance, back spin with the end-on-your-side-with-your head-on-your-hand move.
Marin hot Kristi Yamaguchi stopped at center ice and praised: “a huge mentor of mine, a hero of mine, my friend, Brian Boitano.” Boitano joined her for a hug and the two promptly exited. My plus-one asked, “what was that for?” Exactly. Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko provided quick distraction appearing in rustlers’ costumes with bandit bandanas over the nose. Their cowboy music transitioned into something vaguely eastern European. Plus-one could only guess “Chanukah song?”
Petrenko replaced the duo with his own western costume and proceeded to ride a pretend horse to stock cowboy movie, jus’ ridin’ the range music from a piano. Bumba-deedah, bumba-deedah. Sagebrush gave way to America’s pastime as all the men joined Petrenko in Giants home uniforms. Arm in arm the men led us in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Steven Cousins swinging his bat dangerously close to David Pelletier’s head. And then Yamaguchi returned to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” still Marin hot, still without any intention of performing, but content to deliver another Boitano tribute. The Manilow set break closed with Sato and Dungjen dancing to “Turn the Beat Around,” the crowd chanting, “Love to hear the percussion!” A late fall mardi gras descended on Fog City.
The second set showcased the contemplative Manilow and the skaters matched his mood. Missing were the triples and ‘Tano triples but in their place were highly nuanced performances. Leanova and Khvalko went first with “Even Now.” Petrenko followed with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Besedin and Polischuk interrupted the sobriety with their best Rosenkratz and Guildenstern impersonation. Suffice to say their on-ice “wrestling” won’t make the censored cut of NBC’s broadcast but it was opera buffa at its best. Then Hamill pushed out of her opening stance to Manilow’s cover of the Croce barroom classic, “Time in a Bottle.” A slight slip mid program left Hamill gazing apologetically at Manilow at song’s end. Manilow smiled benevolently at the athlete erasing all blame.
And suddenly Boitano was on-ice for one last talk. He explained how growing up his father had always wanted him to skate to Manilow’s “I Write the Songs.” That father-son challenge/promise had gone unfulfilled until now. With Manilow at the piano Boitano, the show’s creator and Artistic Director (seriously, the man does it all,) privileged the audience to a Boitano family slide show on the diamond vision. Here I fell into a brand new existential dilemma: when sitting at an ice skating spectacular and Barry Manilow concert and slide show of Brian Boitano’s young life what do you do watch? I tried my best to take it all in. While my ears were full time on Manilow - “It’s from you, it’s from me, it’s a world wide symphony” – my eyes went from 30 foot high graduation photos of Boitano to actual Boitano skating to birthday photos of Boitano to Boitano skating to Manilow to Boitano family Christmas photos to Boitano skating to Manilow to photos of Boitano in early competition outfits to Boitano skating to Manilow to medal ceremony photos and on. At the end both skater and singer bowed to each other and then to the stands and thus the lights went out.
In researching I spent a lot of time on fan sites with self-professed fanilows. Let me up the f’ante: until you’ve seen Manilow with billboard sized images of high school Boitano in the background and a very live Boitano skating in the foreground, you haven’t seen all of Manilow.
Set List (Manilow performances in bold):
Eye of the Tiger
It’s Been Such a Long Time
Play That Funky Music, White Boy
Isn’t She Lovely?
It Never Rains in Southern California
Memories/The Way We Were
My Eyes Adore You
Weekend in New England
Unknown Breakdance R&B song
Rock Me, Amadeus
Cowboy movie “riding the range” scene music. “Bumba-deedah, bumba-deedah” on the piano.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
I Want You to Want Me
Turn the Beat Around - Love to hear percussion!
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
Time in a Bottle
I Write the Songs
Aflac presents Brian Boitano Skating Spectacular starring Barry Manilow airs on NBC on Saturday, December 22, 2007 from 1:00-3:00 PM. Please check local listings.