Train of technicians helps 'Starlight Express' adhere to its timetable

KEEPING A MUSICAL ON TRACK

January 20, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

All aboard! At 5 a.m. tomorrow "Starlight Express" rolls out of Rochester, N.Y., on its way to Baltimore.

The touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Richard Stilgoe musical about trains -- said to be the most elaborate tour ever mounted -- is scheduled to pull into Baltimore eight hours later. But you won't see locomotives hauling this $5 million production.

Around 1 p.m., 11 48-foot tractor-trailers will begin lining up outside the Lyric Opera House, according to Brian "B. B." Baker, whose duties as production carpenter include overseeing the move. Those tractor-trailers are transporting one of the most high-tech musicals ever to hit the road, a musical that borrows technology from sources as diverse as rock shows and aerospace engineering. To put it bluntly, playing with trains was never like this.

"The show is really about special effects," says Mr. Baker, whose involvement dates back to technical work building the set a few months before the tour began in October 1989.

A sampling of the cargo includes an array of computers; two lasers; more than 22 miles of fiber optics; a 25-ton grid containing the show's lighting, technical and mechanical connections; and, oh yes, 75 pairs of roller skates -- the actors wear skates to portray trains racing coast to coast in this multimedia retelling of "The Little Engine that Could."

Sixty local stagehands have been hired to load the set into the Lyric; they will be assisting 20 production people who travel with the show. (By comparison, the average touring musical travels with a crew of eight to 10 and hires about 30 local stagehands).

The crew at the Lyric will work until midnight tomorrow and return Tuesday at 8 a.m. for a final four-hour shift. At 4 p.m. the actors come on stage for a brief dress rehearsal. The first performance is at 8 p.m.

If Mr. Baker seems confident about how much time this will take, it's partly because he's loaded "Starlight Express" into approximately 60 cities before Baltimore. "When we first went out, it was around the clock. As the show moves along, you find a lot of shortcuts," he says. The only close call he's had was moving the musical from Seattle to Vancouver, Wash., in a snowstorm a year ago. "All the roads were closed. We ended up getting one truck at a time. We had to work a lot more hours," he recalls. But, he adds, the show opened on time.

Before a single truck rolls into town, Mr. Baker is familiar with the theater in which the show will play. Months in advance he does an on-site "survey of the building to see whether we can fit in, whether the ceiling can handle the weight." In this case, he came to Baltimore last February and examined both the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and the Lyric. The Lyric was chosen because it has better load-in access and more seats. The latter was of special concern since the stage extends 44 feet into the audience, necessitating the removal of 100 seats.

So far, Mr. Baker says, there have only been a few cities with theaters that couldn't accommodate the show. Last week, in Rochester, he ended up playing in a different venue than originally planned.

To allow maximum flexibility, "Starlight Express" travels with three different-sized decks. At the Lyric, the show will be mounted on the medium-sized deck, an 80-foot-wide expanse with crash pads on the offstage walls.

The result of all of this planning, technology and manpower isn't a replica of the sprawling spectacle that ran on Broadway for two years. With the exception of the German production, for which a theater was built around the show, "Starlight Express" has been moving more and more toward proscenium staging since its original, environmental British incarnation. The touring set was designed by Raymond Huessy, based on designs by John Napier, who created the sets on the West End and Broadway.

The biggest problem in redesigning "Starlight Express" for the road was that "physically we could not go into every theater every week and begin to set up ramps and tunnels throughout the theater -- all the things that trains travel through," explains Jeremiah J. Harris, the touring production's New York based technical supervisor.

The solution was to put part of the action on film. But this is not just any film; it's state-of-the-art, insists Mr. Harris, whose credits include developing the motion-control systems for "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and the forthcoming American production of "Miss Saigon."

"On the film we have a time code which communicates with the scenery computer and initiates cues for the scenery," he explains. Audiences will see the first lap of a race performed live, followed by a segment of rolling film and scenery, which segues back into a live finish. "To my knowledge it's never been done in the theater," he says.

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