When the producers for the national touring company of "Starlight Express" heard Jimmy Lockett sing the show's title song during a performance of "The Andrew Lloyd Webber Tour," the first question they asked the singer was, "Can you roller skate?"
"I said 'no'," said Lockett. "They gave me a pair of skates and my life was changed forever."
The classical singer is appearing in the poignant role of Poppa, an old steam engine who has seen finer days, in the current production of the roller skating extravaganza, "Starlight Express," at the Lyric Opera House through Sunday.
Lockett's powerful dramatic baritone enriches such numbers as "Papa's Blues," "I Am the Starlight" and the stirring "Light at the End of the Tunnel."
An alumnus of the Juilliard School where he majored in music composition, Lockett, 36, played the role of Jim in "Big River" on Broadway and in the national tour. His was the diabolical voice of Audrey II for "Little Shop of Horrors" off-Broadway and in Toronto. Television and big screen movie appearances include ABC's soap opera "All My Children" and "Let's Do It Again" with Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby.
Presently Lockett is working on a symphonic ballet, piano concerto and a musical titled "Gamblin," which he hopes to take to Broadway.
Born into a musical family in Cleveland, he received numerous scholarships for music lessons as a boy. "My mother was a singer and my aunt is a professional singer and pianist playing in clubs in New York," said Lockett.
After years of musical instruction and performance, Lockett played feature roles with the Atlanta Theater Company. In Atlanta he played several instruments in regional bands before moving to New York.
"I never dreamed I would be roller skating in a show," he said. "Music is my talent. Some of these skaters are amazing . . . going 12 feet up in the air. In the Juilliard School of skating I wouldn't stand a chance," he joked.
"At age 14 I tried skating and fell and declared I would never skate again. I was wrong," he said. "After weeks of intensive training for 'Starlight,' the producers told us to take the skates home and live on them . . . cooking . . . doing housework . . . whatever . . . until we were totally comfortable."
Smiling and shaking his head, he said, "I am never totally comfortable. The role I play is that of the older steam engine who has done it all before. I have to be very fast and do well working with people in various groupings. I have to know my patterns. But the difference is I don't have to do elaborate tricks like the others."
Lockett's heavy costume (over 30 pounds) covers a 6-foot, 225-pound frame. Each of the 26 on stage characters wears a special costume depicting assorted types of locomotives and parts of railroad trains.
"No major disasters so far," said Lockett, "but there have been some pretty serious spills. We were taught how to fall, how to minimize what happens." He pauses, then laughs. "Once in a race Poppa was last. The first person fell going up a side ramp. Suddenly there was a starburst of people flying in all different directions. But no one was hurt.
"People stay in shape. We try very hard to be safe."
Lockett said the idea for his play "Gamblin'" came about when he was playing in bands in Atlantic City. "The gigs were generally in the casinos," he said. "One day I walked into this vast casino that seemed to stretch for miles. I stood at the top of the stairs watching the panorama of people working hard at slot machines and card tables. I thought this has to be done on Broadway.
"Every culture in history has had gambling in some form," he said. "I've played blackjack standing at the table for four hours. You lose a hundred and you've got to get emotionally involved. It's like a roller coaster ride. Why do it? That is what the play is about."