The current edition of the Ice Capades, esconced at the Capital Centre as either "Skates Alive" or "Smurfs Alive" (it depends on who's watching or who's paying for the ticket) is a bit more ragged than in recent years.
As live family entertainment, it pretty much has the field to itself at this time of year, but the imagination that has in the past eased the troupe into the realm of art is hardly evident on this go-round.
As always, there is spectacular skating by some former champions (Dorothy Hamill, Sandy Lenz, Paul Heath, Jean Yun), some less-spectacular ensemble work and a tad of comedy. There is one traditional grandiose costume fantasy, an explosion of satin, sequins, and silky choreography in an Oriental fable called "The Sea and the Prince."
And there is the ostensible drawing card, the "Smurfcapades Winter Talent Show," which is, unfortunately, as sleepy and dopey and timely as all transient marketing schemes tend to be. Although Papa Smurf and Smurfette end up doing some minor emceeing work as the show progresses, the whole Smurf bit hardly warrants its prominence in the billing. Besides, one of the charms of the Smurfs is their tininess; on the ice, they're just this year's crop of oversized puppet figures.
If the Smurfs are disappointing, the Whatchamacallits (gangly and gregarious 16-foot-high rod puppets gracefully manipulated in ultraviolet light) are great fun, as are the Ice Blobs and Dingbats that undulate in a scenario that suggests what might have happened had Disney produced "Altered States."
There seems to be more pure skating this year. Hamill has three turns, Lenz two, while Randy Coyne and Debby Cutter create some wonderfully graceful and romantic ballet duets. Heath is muscular, but like many of the Capettes and Cadets he's seen "Saturday Night Fever" too many times. The precision ensembles looked only incidentally intended for skates, as if the Solid Gold dancers had been put on ice.
On the plus side are the boldness, assurance and fluidity of the former champions, who seem barely contained by the edges of the ice surface. Within the "Sea Nymph" saga, there is some enticing magic and illusion (and appropriately spectacular sets and effects). Oddly, one of the biggest hits of the night was Don Dunfield, who did a klutzy diving board routine without benefit of skates. His body English tended to be in the Casey Stengel dialect, and he elicited both the biggest laughs and the hardiest applause of the evening.
On the negative side: At the risk of alienating those who prefer the secondhand image to the real thing, the Capital Centre should switch off its Tel-Screen for the rest of the Ice Capades run. The giant screen not only chops and crops the images, thus denying the expanse of graceful movement, it also washes the colors out of the costumes and severely dulls the impact of too many people's hard work.
Still, "Skates Alive" is not only rare but suitable entertainment for the family. It remains at the Capital Centre through Feb. 27, with no shows Feb. 22 and 23.