Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Starlight Express (Playhouse Square Center)

‘STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ falls of its tracks at the State

As I approached a friend at intermission of ‘STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ he said, “So what’s the big deal?” His wife said, “I really don’t like this.” Their comments seemed to be echoing all around the lobby. The flow toward the exit doors was considerable. Okay, I thought, it will get better in the second act. Nope!

The local reaction to ‘STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ isn’t universal. Second only to ‘CATS’ as the longest running musical in British theatre history, the London production of the show ran over 6000 performances. The Broadway production ran for 761 performances. Part of the attraction to the show was its sheer marvel. In London, a theatre was totally redone to accommodate the show. The hi-tech spectacle on roller skates featured a 5.5 ton steel suspension bridge and a gigantic set constructed of 6 miles of timber, 2.5 acres of sheetwood and 60 tons of steel. The cast encircled the stage and the audience as they skated and raced. The show cost 2.25 million British pounds when originally mounted in London. This was not the set or the show seen in Cleveland.

The spectacular flying leaps and gravity game excitement was not present on the State theatre’s single center stage ramp. Substituted were a series of films in which the audience was instructed to wear their safety goggles. In reality, they were 3-D glasses handed out with the programs. The first race scene might have been fun with this gimmick. By the time we got to the third viewing, it was a tired gimmick.

Because of the set and the small stage size, the spectacular effect of dancing and moving quickly on skates was lost. Not lost was the use of smoke, pyrotechnics, laser lights, the over 1400 colored lights, and a few very spectacular high-flying skating flips.

‘STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ was originally conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1973 as an animated television series loosely based on the children’s story “The Little Engine That Could.” The story revolves around a battered steam engine named Rusty who is encouraged to race a flashy diesel locomotive. In the story the little engine wins against all odds and encourages children to set high goals, no matter their perceived weakness and be to steady to the task.

The present production was supposedly a “new” version with additional songs by Webber and Tony Award winner John Napier, his new lyricist. The additional songs added little. The score itself lacks any great music, though there is good variety. Rock, do-wop, ballads, blues, rap, country, and gospel are all present. The strong song is the theme music, “Starlight Sequence,” commonly called “Only You.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘STARLIGHT EXPRESS’ is a disappointing part of the McDonald Financial Group’s Broadway Series at Playhouse Square Center.