Starlight Express

It has been nearly 20 years since auds at London's Apollo Victoria first thrilled to male engines and female rolling stock, all skating by just inches from their flared British nostrils. Ever since, "Starlight Express" has been wheeled out and exploited in so many different and often tacky ways in North America that its post-London history makes that original West End production look like "Death of a Salesman."

With:
With: Tony Andrade, Dustin Bubreuil, Graham Harvey, Jeremy Kocal, Dennis LeGree, Stephen Masters, Katie O'Toole, Russell H. Saylor III, Franklyn Warfield, Drue Williams, Aaron Coulson, Eric Christopher Freese, Kait L. Holbrook, Paul Lane, Joanna Loughran-Richert, Scott Martin, Robert E. Roby III, Kelly Stensland, Brandon Warner, Jeffrey Dean, Clarissa Grace, Robyn Hurder, Jared Lee, W. Louis, Leesa M. Osborn, B. Tucker Rotundo, Kristofer L. Stock, Orren Webber, Suzanne Wogisch.

It has been nearly 20 years since auds at London’s Apollo Victoria first thrilled to male engines and female rolling stock, all skating by just inches from their flared British nostrils. Ever since, “Starlight Express” has been wheeled out and exploited in so many different and often tacky ways in North America (legit tours, arena shows, a cut-down Vegas version, etc.) that its post-London history makes that original West End production look like “Death of a Salesman.”

And despite new but barely discernible “additional lyrics” from David Yazbek and an all-new rap number (!) from ALW himself, the latest Yank touring “Starlight” is about the worst version to date. Even the Vegas show was more fun — and that was a 90-minute truncation.

With a dull, sub-standard 3-D film employed to avoid the need to build tracks beyond the proscenium, and a general lack of any new staging ideas, it’s likely to attract poor reviews across the country. Rather than offering a rethinking (or even just a proudly retro approach), this is a re-tread with contempo additions that smell inauthentic. What little B.O. steam may be in this show’s future (and we’re talking a few puffs before the reviews come out) will come strictly from ALW’s familiar moniker, and from the perennial need for family auds to find something with cross-generational appeal.

What’s most staggering about this latest “Starlight” (once again, the work of Arlene Phillips, the original choreographer and John Napier, the original designer) is that it seems to have lost any reference to trains. The original version at least managed to position itself as a little boy’s railway fantasy, which diluted the problems of its gender and ethnic stereotyping (the old African-American bluesman as the steam train…). And even though it never was rocket science, this always was a fun and tuneful show, with a couple of decent ballads, a decent C&W parody and enough of a spirit of play to get the goosebumps going a bit. And the tracks in the auditorium were, at the time, a terrific idea.

Tracks? These days, tightwad producers see only expense on the rails. And for this newest tour (sans union affiliation, but showing up on major road seasons), the show is confined well behind the proscenium line.

There’s a rock-concert style light rig. And there’s one genuinely arresting and creative special effect involving a green laser and smoke in the second act. But otherwise, one watches the performers from a distance. Instead of choo-choos, they all look like figures from Nintendo locked in some kind of time warp. And if you didn’t know the show at all, I suspect it wouldn’t make much sense.

The 3D film is a flop — not because it was such a lousy idea to do the race on film, but because the film itself is so lame. Auds who have seen the sophisticated 3-D movies in the Florida theme parks will be bored by this effort from Julian Napier. At the very least, one could expect the movie to have a few laughs and tell the story of the race with a modicum of tension. It fails on both counts.

The performers are solid enough. Franklyn Warfield does his best with Rusty; Clarissa Grace warbles nicely enough as Pearl, and Dennis LeGree brings a spot of dignity to Poppa. But like the other elements of this strangely misconceived show, none of them pop up from a toy box that’s been cleaned out by now.

Starlight Express

Oriental Theater, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Chicago; 2,180 Seats; $80 Top

Production: A Sierra-Flo Co. presentation, in association with Troika Entertainment, of a musical in two acts with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, additional lyrics by David Yazbek. Directed and choreographed by Arlene Phillips.

Creative: Sets and costumes, John Napier; lighting, Rick Belzer; sound, Mark Norfolk; musical direction, Michael Duff; film by Julian Napier. Opened, reviewed July 5, 2003. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast: With: Tony Andrade, Dustin Bubreuil, Graham Harvey, Jeremy Kocal, Dennis LeGree, Stephen Masters, Katie O'Toole, Russell H. Saylor III, Franklyn Warfield, Drue Williams, Aaron Coulson, Eric Christopher Freese, Kait L. Holbrook, Paul Lane, Joanna Loughran-Richert, Scott Martin, Robert E. Roby III, Kelly Stensland, Brandon Warner, Jeffrey Dean, Clarissa Grace, Robyn Hurder, Jared Lee, W. Louis, Leesa M. Osborn, B. Tucker Rotundo, Kristofer L. Stock, Orren Webber, Suzanne Wogisch.

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