Stars on Ice
Kurt List

Kristi Yamaguchi's Friends and Family - Phoenix, AZ - Sep. 29, 2007

written by Tina

Rarely has a program title seemed so apt as Ilia Kulik's "Too Darn Hot" at Kristi Yamaguchi's Friends and Family. It was a hot, 90+ degree evening in Phoenix, AZ, not at all what would typically be considered figure skating weather, and many in the audience wore tank tops and sleeveless shirts, not a sight typically seen at a figure skating show. The heat, however, didn't at all dampen the energy and enthusiasm of the skaters, their families, and the two musical acts who were there to entertain an extremely excited and exuberant audience.

And what an audience it was. Composed in large part of pre-teens and teenyboppers, the audience filled the arena with their piercing screams, enthusiastically cheering for everything and everyone. It was a level of energy rarely seen in a figure skating crowd, a fact that Kurt Browning, as one of the co-hosts, both commented on and played to, inciting the audience to even louder screams and cheers. To their credit, the kids in the audience didn't confine their cheers to their Disney idols - Corbin Bleu from High School Musical and The Cheetah Girls. They applauded the skaters' every move, and emphatically appreciated the skaters' kids' efforts.

The musical acts did not disappoint, either. Corbin Bleu, his dancers, and the Cheetah Girls went all out, putting on great, high-energy performances, getting really into it, and very appreciative of the skaters. In dress rehearsal, the Cheetah Girls whooped with abandon when Rory or Josef or Michael did backflips, and cheered the skaters on in between numbers, while Corbin Bleu and his dancers watched the skaters with admiration and appeciation as they performed on stage. They gave the show a youthful, energetic vibe. In return, the skaters, and particularly their kids, fed off the energy of the groups and seemed to be having the time of their lives, laughing with each other and enjoying every minute on the ice.

It's evident that this show is particularly special to the skaters for the opportunity to skate with their kids, and for their kids. The kids themselves are fearless, skating in front of a huge audience, on national TV with nary a blink, acting like pros out there on the ice. And many of them are showing every sign they've inherited both talent and showmanship from their parents. Many of the kids also evidently were fans of the Cheetah Girls and Corbin Bleu, and you can only imagine how many cool points their parents won for getting them this opportunity to perform with their idols.

The show opened, after an introduction by Kurt Browning, with the Cheetah Girls performing "Fuego" and the cast coming out dressed all in red. This was a high energy opening that set the tone for the rest of the night. Instead of the typical succession of each skater doing their solo showcase bit, the skaters paired off in unusual pairings, such as Michael Weiss with Rory Flack Burghart, or Nancy Kerrigan with Ilia Kulik, ending with Kristi Yamaguchi skating side by side with Viktor Petrenko. This provided a smooth transition to the next number, which featured Viktor's daughter Victoria, a poised and accomplished little skater who danced happily by the stage with the Cheetah Girls as Kristi and Victor skated out together, and then showed off her own solo skating prowess. Eventually, she and her dad took the ice together, and it was great seeing the adoration in Victoria's eyes as she followed her father's example.

Kurt and Kristi, the co-hosts for the evening, came out to welcome the crowd and introduce the show, talking about how special the evening was, how they were a big skating family but now each skater has brought their own family, making it even more special.

The next family to take the ice was Michael Weiss with his two children, Annie Mae and Christopher. This was also Corbin Bleu's first performance of the evening, singing "Push It To the Limit" and earning a huge reaction from the crowd just by stepping out on stage. The program opened with Michael taking a turn on the ice with each of his children, lifting Annie Mae high above his head in a pairs lift, and skating around the ice with Christopher in hockey skates. The two kids then took their place by the stage to dance along to the music as their dad started dancing in sync with the dancers on stage, very enthusiastically mirroring their movements and exhibiting a certain skill at dancing on the ice. This was a fun number, and closed with the three Weiss' taking a bow together by the stage.

Now that both musical acts had been on stage and we had gotten our first taste of skater families skating together, it was time to mix things up a bit with a series of solo, non-kid-themed numbers by a number of the skaters. Rory Flack Burghart went first, skating expressively and beautifully to Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten." This song has been on the radio quite a lot in the last year, but also may be familiar to skating fans since it was one of Kimmie Meissner's exhibition programs. Josef Sabovcik followed Rory with a rocking, high energy number, complete with characteristic backflip and huge jumps.

Kurt and Kristi then came out to introduce the next number, featuring Nancy Kerrigan and her son Matthew, and eventually joined by her younger son Brian. They particularly wanted us to know that Matthew had decided to start taking figure skating lessons after the previous year's show, lessons that he used to great effect in this baseball number with his mom. He looked very comfortable out on the ice, both in the skates and in front of an audience, and already skated like a pro - down to the use of a prop! The song was "I Don't Dance" from High School Musical 2 (Corbin's voice, but not Corbin live) and the two Red Sox fans danced, batted, and pitched with great enthusiasm, all the while skating with baseball bats. Towards the end, Kurt came out with little Brian, who was also fully decked out in baseball gear, and it was lovely to see Matthew's big brother protectiveness as well as Nancy's joy and pride in her kids. At one point, Nancy did a spiral with Brian held in her arms, while Brian looked around at the audience with bright interest. It was really quite adorable.

As Kurt reminded us later, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand have long been "so in love" and have really perfected skating to romantic love songs. Two pregnancies and the subsequent time off the ice haven't marred Jenni's beautiful line or the lifts and moves the two try, and they still have the loving gaze and romantic poses down perfectly. A really nice, lyrical, romantic skate.

To mix things up even more, Ilia Kulik brought a complete change of pace when he came out on the ice for "Too Darn Hot," his popular exhibition program. The song really was particularly apt, applying to both the weather and to Ilia's performance. Ilia's musicality is great, and his loose-limbed, footwork-filled, and limber program was a great deal of fun and a great showcase for his skills.

Kurt and Kristi came out singing "Too Darn Hot" and bopping along before introducing the last program before intermission - the rest of Ilia's family, performing to "Homesick," a song written by one of the Cheetah Girls that usually meant a lot to that family due to the travel and performance schedule of Ilia and Katia, but, as Kurt said, didn't apply that night since the whole family was together. What followed was a really lovely and really fun program that showcased the talent and beauty of Ilia's girls. When looking at Katia, who still looks so young, it's difficult to see her as the parent of such a grown-up, mature, and beautiful young woman as Daria, but her love and maternal care for Daria is clear to see. As for Daria, she's a beaming, bright presence on the ice, with a gorgeous big Sergei-like grin and an obviously exuberant personality to match. In contrast, little Liza is the picture of Ilia, down to the focus and intensity, and obvious perfectionism. She was a quiet but intense observer sitting on the side of the stage as her sister and mother skated, but then very seriously went out to do her part, skating alone as she jumped, spun (a nice sit spin and cross-foot scratch spin), and did a long, steady spiral. It wasn't until she was done that she allowed the focus to relax and really smiled and enjoyed the moment, and the pride and love in both Daria and Katia's faces as they watched her was wonderful to see. The Cheetah Girls clearly were impressed as well, gesturing Liza over and talking to her at the close of the program, which was a nice thrill for her.

After a 20 minute intermission, Rory's ten year old son Remington and Rory came out to skate together as Corbin Bleu and his dancers performed "Homework." According to Kristi, Remington was a big fan of Corbin Bleu, and learned the dance moves and taught them to Rory. Rory's focus in this number was almost entirely on Remington, and she obviously adores her son and was extremely proud to be skating with him. As for Remington, he was an enthusiastic presence on the ice, happily dancing along to Corbin Bleu and performing tricks with his mom.

One of the highlights of the evening came next. Gabriella Marval appears to have inherited the fearlessness gene from her mom, while Isabelle Brasseur appears to have taught Rocky some of the tricks she used to perform with Lloyd Eisler. The resulting program was fun, energetic, and had some of the best integration of choreography utilizing all three members of the family of the evening. Gabriella was no mere observer as her parents did tricks like spinning around with Isabelle held upside down by the ankle and one hand in front of Rocky. She skated around them, showing herself to be a very skilled skater. And Isabelle didn't just watch as Rocky spun the fearless Gabriella up and around in a star position, face down to the ice, going up and down and up and down... She was busy doing a shoot the duck type move around them. When Rocky held Isabelle parallel to the ice between his legs, Gabriella was holding onto mom's hands as she did a spiral behind them. There was a 3-person shoot-the-duck chain with Gabriella in the lead, and a 3-person death spiral with Rocky holding both Isabelle and Gabriella's hands. At the end, Rocky lifted both his girls onto each knee in a final pose with the whole family, just as the entire program had utilized all the skills of the whole family. Just a great, fun program, and a very impressive skate by Gabriella Marval.

Matthew didn't skate in the next number by Nancy Kerrigan, but his and Brian's presence were still very much felt as they sat on the side of the ice and watched their mom. The program was obviously a love song from Nancy to her sons, and their presence seemed to inspire her. This was a lovely, lyrical, and joyful skate by Nancy, and was capped by her skating over to give her sons a kiss, and being handed a rose by the very cute little Brian.

There was both a lot of fun and a bit of nostalgia to the next program by Josef and his "echoes." The Sabovcik's pulled out one of Josef's classics, a program from 1993 called "Fire," by Bruce Springsteen. Blade, with his long blond hair and lean long body already looks a bit like Josef, but when he, his brother little Josef, and his dad came out dressed in identical white t-shirts, blue jeans, and red bandannas hanging out of their back pockets, the family resemblance went beyond just mere resemblance. It was like watching Josef at different stages of his life out on the ice together. Little Josef was absolutely adorable in this number, mimicking the moves and dancing along, looking very cool with his slicked back hair. Even as his dad and brother skated out on the ice, leaving him on the stage, he very diligently kept up his part of the choreography. Kid's a natural born performer. Eventually all three guys ended up on the ice as Josef skated some of the choreography of his classic program, before the three closed the program sliding on their knees with arm outstretched.

If the previous number was fun in a very cool Josef way, the next number really amped up the cute factor. Jenni and Todd's two sons are still too young to really go out on the ice alone to skate like some of the other skaters' kids, but that didn't stop Jenni from taking a turn on the ice with each of her Sands men to "Mr. Sandman." As Todd sat in a chair on stage holding their sons, Jenni started off skating alone, before coming to the stage to take little 1-year old Matthew for a spin on the ice. In dress rehearsal, Matthew was a little ball of joyful excitement, but in the show, I think the noise of the crowd may have scared him a bit. Being in Mom or Dad's arms wasn't so bad but when Uncle Kurt came out to take him so Jenni and Todd could skate together, Matthew decided to make his objections known - in Kurt's ear. As for Jack, he was having fun but I think the noise may have bothered him a little too since he was a bit more reticent than he was in dress rehearsal. He did take a few steps on the ice before being scooped up by mom and returned to dad, where Kurt was taking Matthew. It was finally time for Jenni and Todd to skate together, which they did very cutely. With all their romantic programs it's easy to forget sometimes that Todd can be a big goofball on the ice, using exaggerated facial expressions to play it up to the audience and adding to the fun factor of the program. The program closed with all four Sands waving to the crowd, the very picture of a cute loving family.

As fun and cute as they were, after five programs in a row of skaters with their kids, Viktor Petrenko brought a nice change of pace with a cool, snappy number to "Mack the Knife." Dressed all in black with hat and cane, Viktor connected with the audience, showing what a great performer he is, and skating with snappy precision to the music. This was a great program for him. He was followed by Katia Gordeeva skating to "Alacran," the sultry, Latin-esque exhibition number she performed on last year's Stars on Ice tour. It's a joy to watch Katia perform - she feels the music down to her bones, she cuts a lovely figure on the ice, and she knows how to work every aspect of her performance from facial expression to body language to choreography. Katia was followed by Michael Weiss, skating to his ode to his kids, "I'm Already There,", as his kids sat on the side of the ice and watched him. It was a soulful performance whose emotional impact was only slightly lessened by the fact that it's a song about being away from his family, while his family was sitting right there.

The only ensemble (aside from the opening and closing) program featured Kristi, Nancy, Rory, and Isabelle skating as Corbin Bleu and his dancers performed on stage. I'm not sure but I *think* the song was "She Could Be." The four ladies in this program looked to be having a great time with each other, laughing and smiling as they each took their turn on the ice or danced for the audience. Each skater had her individual spot, such as Isabelle doing a lovely series of spread eagles down the ice. Each lady also got to take a turn with one of the dancers, getting spun or dipped. The number ended with Kristi dancing in front of Corbin, and then sitting on his knee as they grinned at each other. It was quite cute.

One of the other highlights of the evening was also the last program before the finale - Ilia Kulik performing with Corbin Bleu and his dancers to "Deal With It." We already got a taste of skater dancing with Corbin and company with Michael Weiss' earlier program to "Push It To the Limit" but Ilia's program took this concept to the next level, providing a dynamic program with choreography completely integrated and totally in sync with what was going on on stage. Ilia is usually a pretty introverted skater, even taking into account the high-energy dancing programs he's done in the past, but with "Deal With It" he put it totally out there. His engagement with the music, with the dancers, and with the audience was incredibly fun to watch, and his total commitment to the moves and choreography was awesome. If you weren't looking carefully, you wouldn't even realize Ilia was on the ice while the dancers were on stage - he looked like one of them, dancing on the ice as if it wasn't ice. This program was incredibly fun, and it was evident that Corbin and his dancers were as impressed with Ilia as the audience was, watching him with delight and high-fiving him at the end.

Too soon, the evening began to draw to a close with the finale. The Cheetah Girls took the energy flowing through the arena from Corbin and Ilia's performance and ran with it, making sure the night wouldn't end on a down note. The finale opened with Rory doing a back flip right across the front of the stage, and she was shortly joined by the rest of the ladies, each wearing an oversized colorful men's jacket over an equally colorful dress, providing quite a vibrant rainbow effect. After the ladies vamped in front of the stage for a while, the guys joined them in shirtsleeves and ties, but no jacket. After skating around and doing a bunch of tricks (including simultaneous Josef and Michael backflips), the guys got their jackets from the girls and paired off in similar pairings as the opening - Rory and Michael, Katia and Josef, and lucky Viktor with both Kristi and Nancy. After a little flirtatious skating, the girls broke off, and Ilia soon skated out to join the rest of the guys, leading them in an energetic charge down the ice before breaking off to be surrounded by girls and leading *them* back up the ice. The skaters again paired off, with Rory dancing with Viktor, Katia with Michael, Nancy with Josef, and Ilia dipping Kristi. Finally, the number ended with the skaters spread out triumphantly in front of the stage, in identical poses with the Cheetah Girls.

For the final bows, all the kids, Corbin Bleu, and his three dancers all came back out on the stage, and everyone milled about excitedly. The Cheetah Girls all obviously love kids, and at various points were carrying various kids. It was really fun to see the kids hanging out with each other, the older kids watching over the younger (Daria was carrying little Matthew Sand, Blade was hanging with Christopher, Annie Mae was playing with Keara, etc etc) and the similar aged kids hanging out together. Eventually, everyone cleared the ice so they could do retakes.

Kurt came out and was his usual goofy self, keeping the audience entertained as he convinced them to stay a little longer so people on TV wouldn't see the incongruous sight of a full crowd, the skater doing a jump to empty stands, and then back to full crowd. He had the kids (and many of the adults - two men behind me kept guffawing very loudly to things he was saying) eating out of the palm of his hand, giggling at his silliness and enjoying his pratfall when he discovered a bumpy part of the ice. Unfortunately, the energy level of retakes went down a bit when something like 3 or 4 skaters in succession came out to do retakes without music, leaving some in the audience a bit confused. Most of the audience stuck it out though, and still provided an energetic cheering soundtrack for the skaters who needed to do retakes. Eventually Kurt and Kristi came out to do some retakes of their MC-ing duties, since the mike had cut out on Kristi a few times earlier. Kurt was funny even here - when he was doing takes of his own introductions, he would say stuff like "You're in for a fantastic show! Kristi's invited some of her fantastic and I just said fantastic twice. We're going to be here for a loooong time" and when he had to retake with Kristi, at one point she had to go get changed to match costumes and hair, and when she came back out, she interrupted them at one point to straighten out her hair. Kurt then was like "how's my hair?" and then said he'd forgotten what he was going to say since he was busy touching up her hair. Eventually, the evening drew to a close, and Kurt and Kristi thanked the audience before bidding everyone a good night.

All in all Kristi's show this year was a tremendously high energy, extremely fun, and extremely unique show. You don't often get the opportunity to see these families out on the ice together, and it's wonderful to see the new generation of talent, as well as the loving bonds between the families and between the friends. Couple that with two very appealing and very exuberant musical acts, and you get an excellent night of entertainment. It may have been "too darn hot" outside, but inside, the skating was very cool.

Kristi Yamaguchi's Friends and Family airs Nov. 25, 2007 from 4-6PM EST on NBC.