Wait for It: Stars on Ice shines brighter as show goes on, leaving you wanting more

Meryl Davis and Charlie White in "Elastic Heart."  (Photo courtesy Stars on Ice)

Meryl Davis and Charlie White in "Elastic Heart."  (Photo courtesy Stars on Ice)

The first half of Sunday’s Stars on Ice show at Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago felt like an interminable rock concert with skating as an incidental accompaniment to music blared at twice the necessary volume.

The decibels didn’t drop much in the second half.  But, despite a difficult two days of travel, the skaters amped themselves up after intermission with programs richer in choreography and polish.  Those performances thankfully dampened the music, putting the skaters at the center of the icy stage and allowing the visual to take the expected precedence over the aural.

By the penultimate star turn, with new world champion Nathan Chen doing “Nemesis,” his competitive short program this season, this was a show that clearly understood the maxim to always leave the audience wanting more.   As Stars finished with the entire cast - 13 U.S. Olympians - combining on “You Will Be Found” from “Dear Evan Hansen,” the two hours of entertainment had become more and more compelling.

For me, a fourth chance for me to see Chen perform “Nemesis” live was especially appealing, especially given how ironic the title had become after the way he stumbled through it twice at the 2018 Olympics.  Yes, the quadruple jumps are gone from the show version, but the essence of the program remains exhilarating.

Dressed all in black, which fit the music and choreography better than the costumes he had worn the rest of this season, Chen captured the piece's restlessness and the contrast between its moments of pulsating rhythm on the piano and those of lush lyricism in the strings.  If he had done it as well at the Olympics as he did at the ensuing World Championships, this program might well have been remembered as a landmark in the sport.

I’ll be sorry to see it become a bittersweet memory, knowing he has more fully expressed its essence with each performance.  Much as I frown on skaters repeating programs from one year to the next, this one would be worth bringing back one more time – maybe two seasons hence.  It's that captivating, and in the context of Stars on Ice, it gave the competitor in Chen the vehicle to meet the challenge of following a show-stopping performance by 2014 Olympic ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Davis and White did a revised version – with different music, this one “Elastic Heart" by Sia - of a piece they first had performed at an Italian ice show last fall.  The theme of star-crossed love was at the center of both versions, as was the long bolt of maroon cloth they artfully used to illustrate being trapped and liberated by passion.

Davis and White cleverly reassembled the program to complement the new music while maintaining an understated grace and flow in their movements and illustrating the motif with striking expressiveness in their faces and arms.   This was 3 ½ minutes of breathtakingly beautiful story ballet on ice by two exceptional competitors (Olympic gold, two world titles, six U.S. titles) who have gone on to become consummate entertainers.

With the frenetic post-2018-Olympic schedules for many members of the cast, it was no surprise that most of the other command performances came from skaters who used competitive programs with which they were totally familiar:

*Adam Rippon in his unabashedly in-your-face short program to “Let Me Think About it.”

*Maia and Alex Shibutani in their free dance to Coldplay, as poignantly heartstring-tugging as it had been to win the bronze medal in South Korea.

Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen as dance partners in "The Shape of You."  (NBC Sports screenshot) 

Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen as dance partners in "The Shape of You."  (NBC Sports screenshot) 

*Ashley Wagner’s “La La Land” long program, which she skated Sunday with energy, emotion and pizazz that likely would have put her on the 2018 Olympic team had they been as evident in her competitive debut of that free skate at the U.S. Championships.  As one might expect, the more she has skated it, the better it has become. Maybe if she had stuck with her original plan to use that “La La Land” program all season. . ..

Wagner was Chen’s dance partner in the ensemble number, Ed Shearan’s “Shape of You,” that opened the second half with its upbeat, romantic, sensual (sexty?) mood.  The blending of two U.S. singles champions with two U.S. champion dance couples (Davis-White and Madison Hubbell – Zachary Donohue) and some props that served as a form of musical chairs proved charming.

The troupe had arrived in Chicago following a few long days.  After a Friday night show in Pittsburgh, a scheduled Saturday flight from Pittsburgh to Detroit turned into an unscheduled bus trip when the plane was delayed.  There was a Saturday night show in Detroit and an early wakeup Sunday morning for the flight to Sunday afternoon’s show at Allstate.  The effects of all that were evident in social media posts of skaters trying to squeeze in naps on the Detroit airport floor, one showing Chen with a Yale cap over his face.

Rippon and Mirai Nagasu had been squeezing in rehearsals for their successful Monday night debuts on Dancing With The Stars while skating with Stars on Ice as it traipses across the country in a six-week, 22-city run.  Jason Brown was battling a bad ankle.   Whatever pain or fatigue they or their colleagues felt was subsumed into the professionalism that drives performers who know each day’s crowd is almost certainly seeing them for the first time.

And, in his first number, “Back from the Edge,” Yalie-to-be Chen gave the audience a look at the number that has becoming his calling card: four.  A quad jump.  In a show.  Air Nathan.

(After a four-day break, Stars on Ice resumes Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich., one of 10 cities remaining before the tour ends May 20 in Portland, Ore.  For information and tickets: www.starsonice.com.)