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Skating saga takes the stage to chronicle local star's rise, fall
by: JIM CLARK, Dale Johannes, who plays Tonya Harding’s one-time husband Jeff Gillooly, talks with company pianist Bill Wells during a rehearsal of “Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera,” which was inspired by the two Olympic figure skaters.

Most people assume the life of Oregon's most notorious daughter, figure skater Tonya Harding, has been thoroughly mined for tragicomic possibilities.

Don Horn is just getting started.

Horn, a bit of a local legend himself, will resurrect the battered image of Harding this weekend with 'Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera,' his adaptation of a short chamber opera that has been two years in the making.

'It's been an amazing journey,' Horn says. 'I truly believe this show has something. My goal is to get this to New York, and I think it's got the potential.'

Horn, founder and managing director of Triangle Productions and a force in the creation of the Southeast Portland complex Theater Theatre, also feels the story of Harding and her fabled rival Nancy Kerrigan has never been fully told.

'My thought has always been that she's misunderstood,' Horn says. 'I'd heard so many horrible things about her. I always thought there's got to be more to the story.'

Harding, now 37, dropped out of Milwaukie High School as she began her climb to the rarefied heights of competitive figure skating in the mid-'80s. The first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, she won two national championships before sliding into scandal before the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Her former husband, Jeff Gillooly, and an associate were convicted of conspiring with another man to injure rival skater Kerrigan, who was hit in the knee with a metal pipe in the weeks before the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

The telegenic Kerrigan recovered in time to win a silver medal while Harding's life entered a downward spiral that included a well-publicized sex tape, repeated run-ins with boyfriends and the law, and an uninspired career as a professional boxer and low-tier celebrity.

Horn says Gillooly, who is a main character in the opera, may have been Harding's biggest problem.

'Here's somebody that got famous, somebody else leeched onto her,' Horn says. 'She was 15 when she met Jeff Gillooly. I think he took her for a ride.'

Horn says the rock opera also will reveal another side of Kerrigan, the media darling who had an affair with her older married manager and was once caught on tape badmouthing a parade in which she was being feted.

'Miss Goody Two Shoes wasn't Miss Goody Two Shoes,' he says.

Opera goes rock

Horn is set to make a splash with this bold, sometimes racy retelling of Harding's stranger-than-fiction saga. Since 2006, he has worked with novelist Elizabeth Searle, who wrote the libretto for the original chamber opera.

The music for 'Tonya and Nancy: The Opera' was composed by Searle's niece, a student at Tufts University. By the time it was performed there, it had earned widespread attention.

'Within a day, I was on national TV,' Searle says.

'I've been obsessed with the scandal for a long time,' says the writer and educator, who lives near Kerrigan's hometown of Stoneham, Mass. 'She was a local girl. I fact, I once glimpsed her rollerblading on the bike trails.'

Searle says her fascination with the story centered on the juxtaposition of the balletic beauty of figure skating with the brutality of the planned attack on Kerrigan. The tale, she says, has all the elements of classic tragedy: competition, resentment, jealousy, anger.

While Harding's blue-collar background was well-known, Searle says, Kerrigan was herself a product of relatively modest circumstances.

'Some people think that Nancy came from very rich parents. That's not true. She came from a working-class family that double-mortgaged their home so she could skate.'

And people forget that Harding was once a sympathetic figure.

'Early in Tonya's career, she got a lot of good press,' Searle says. 'She was brash. She was cocky. She was kind of who she was, and that was something that made her interesting. She wasn't pretending to be some little princess, and I think people like that.'

When Horn caught wind of Searle's chamber opera, he saw possibilities.

Searle had heard from other theater types who wanted her to expand on the 35-minute opera but was won over by Horn's willingness to help with the actual work.

Searle's niece produced the name of Michael Teoli, a prolific Hollywood composer who had worked on music for films like 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' and 'The Simpsons Movie.' A rock opera was born.

'It just kept getting bigger and bigger,' Searle says. 'It really became its own show. With the chamber opera, I could only scratch the surface. I feel like I got it all into this rock opera.'

Kerrigan fans come around

Horn's production, which he directs, employs 15 actors and five band members. Veteran conductor and pianist Bill Wells serves as musical director for a show that features no fewer than 29 songs.

The 70-year-old Wells, longtime sidekick to local songstress Susannah Mars, says Teoli's music is no piece of cake.

'It's a very challenging score,' he says. 'The lyrics tend to be on the comic side, but Michael approaches the music in a very serious way.

'There are two or three really beautiful ballads that are quite memorable.'

One of them is a bluesy number called 'When You Wake Up Sleeping in Your Car in Estacada,' which is sung by Drammy-winning actor Dale Johannes.

Even with the harsh acoustics of the production's basement rehearsal space at Southeast Portland's Milagro Theatre, stage manager Meghan McNeal likes what she hears.

'I think our chorus and cast sound awesome,' she says. 'They're mixing amazingly well.'

At a rehearsal, Horn bounces back and forth between Wells, on piano, and a chorus of eight singers. In one scene, the singers portray Olympic judges, and Horn explains the drama that surrounded Harding's last performance at Lillehammer: broken lace, restart, low scores from the judges.

It's clear that Horn is a Tonya champion. He explains that though she failed to earn a medal, she marched with the U.S. team in closing ceremonies, while Kerrigan cut out for Walt Disney World, where she had lined up a paid appearance.

In the rock opera, Lilla D'Mone, a Grant High grad who has made inroads into the West Coast hip-hop and urban soul world as a singer, portrays Kerrigan. The Tonya character is played by Beth Willis, an actor and singer who grew up in Beaverton as a Kerrigan fan.

'Nancy was so pretty,' she says. 'And what happened to her was so bad. Then I read the script. I was practically in tears for Tonya. It gives such a different side.

'We all make mistakes. Not all of us have to do it in the public eye. I think it's amazing she was able to go as far as she did.'

Though the media-wary Harding, who lives in Southwest Washington, has not been involved with the production, Horn talked her into attending Thursday's opening-night performance. He's confident she'll approve of his work.

'I lived in a trailer home,' Horn says. 'I'm from a white-trash family. She understands that I'm not trying to hurt her.'

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