Film bits slam brakes on the excitement of 'Starlight Express'


January 24, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

"Starlight Express" is the roller-skating musical based on "The Little Engine That Could," but the touring production that opened at the Lyric Opera House last night is more like the big musical that can't quite.

For starters, it can't quite decide what it is.

The show -- with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Richard Stilgoe -- is narrated by the broadcast voice of a child playing with trains. But if it's a children's show, why does it include suggestive lyrics, such as this motto of the electric train: "AC/DC, it's OK by me"?

And, if, as the ending suggests, the musical is a salute to the simple virtues of old-fashioned steam engines, what sense does it make to deliver that message in the form of one of the most high-tech touring productions ever to hit the road?

But the biggest problem with this production is it can't decide if it's a stage show or a movie. The plot -- which is so rudimentary the program doesn't credit a scriptwriter -- concerns a cross-country race to determine the fastest train. The trains are portrayed by roller-skating actors. On Broadway they raced across a giant relief map of the United States. In this show, the various heats start out live, then give way to filmed sequences. And these aren't even exciting films. If anything, they make a cartoony show cartoonier.

This isn't entirely a Mickey Mouse production. Granted, the set -- basically a black, dish-shaped skating rink with a circular lap extending out into the audience -- is no substitute for the grand-scale model train garden in New York. But the lights, redesigned for the tour by Rick Belzer and Ted Mather, are the most splendiferous I've ever seen in a theatrical production. At times, their magic seems so powerful you wouldn't be surprised if they beamed someone up, "Star Trek"-fashion.

It's also a pleasure to get another look at the extremely clever padded action-figure costumes that won John Napier a Tony Award.

There are a number of winning performances as well -- no small achievement since all of the actors have to perform on roller skates. Jimmy Lockett makes a gloriously bluesy-voiced Poppa, the granddaddy of steam engines; Ron DeVito oozes Elvis Presley-style slickness as Greaseball, the diesel; and Michael Demby-Cain is suitably flamboyant as the androgynous Electra. As our underdog hero Rusty, the boyish steam train, Fred Tallaksen is disappointing vocally, but then, it's difficult to do much of anything with music and lyrics as cloying as these.

Oh, yes, the plot, which took a few inexplicable twists and turns on Broadway, has been streamlined and improved on the road. But let's face it. The reason to see "Starlight Express" was never the dippy story or songs, it was the physical production. And with part of that production on film, this version just doesn't go the distance.

"Starlight Express" continues at the Lyric Opera House through Feb. 17; call 625-1400.

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