STAGE REVIEW : ‘Starlight Express’ Explodes With Pizazz

Contrary to popular opinion, Andrew Lloyd Webber did not invent theatrical spectacle. He only appears to have been granted its current patent. Flornez Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley built their careers on long-legged choreographic spectacle, and even the esteemed composers of Baroque opera knew a few attention-demanding stage tricks. In the 18th Century, entire scenes would descend from above the stage, accompanied by trumpets and drums, a feat that surprised and dazzled noble opera audiences of the pre-laser era.

Wednesday at Civic Theatre, Lloyd Webber’s cartoon musical “Starlight Express” both dazzled and delighted its opening-night audience. This touring production of the British composer’s 1984 opus, presented by the San Diego Playgoers, imposed its high-tech identity on the staid hall. The oversized set overflowed the theater’s stage area, replacing a section of front seats with a circular skating ramp, and the production brought along its own high-voltage power source for its mighty battery of lights and lasers.

In “Starlight Express,” Lloyd Webber metamorphosed his quirky “Cats” into a transcontinental train race and harnessed the inspirational horsepower of “The Little Engine That Could” to a crew of helmeted skaters. The story--steam engine meets girl, steam engine loses girl, steam engine wins train race to win back girl--is little more than an excuse for sleekly executed choreography on skates. (Arlene Phillips deserves high honors for her tight direction and brilliant choreography.) With its smoke, dancing spotlights, video sequences and smashing, industrial sculpture costumes, the musical is as visually stimulating as it is intellectually vapid.

Always the clever chameleon, Lloyd Webber imitated or burlesqued a host of popular musical idioms, from the blues to 1940s swing harmonies to raucous 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Nor was the composer above a cute country-Western takeoff or a hand-clapping gospel rip-off.


Accompanied by a snappy, high-decibel 12-piece band in the pit--no strings but lots of brass and multiple electronic keyboards--the singers sang and skated in almost constant motion. Microphones attached to the skaters’ helmets picked up their voices and amplified them to appropriate levels for a generation which has lost much of its hearing to heavy-metal rock concerts.

Some voices stood out. As Rusty, the down-and-out steam engine (he’s a bit rusty--get it?) who acquires an infusion of self-confidence in order to win the race, Sean McDermott displayed a fine tenor instrument to grace the composer’s more lyrical flights. Reva Rice, who sang Pearl, the girl Rusty finally wins back, mercilessly belted out her lyrics, although she wisely shifted gears to milk the audience’s sympathy with her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” retread aria just before the finale.

In the role of Poppa, Jimmy Lockett oozed infectious inspiration with his big gospel baritone. Ron DeVito merged macho bravado with an unassailable physical presence in the role of Greaseball, the diesel engine that runs on malice. He was no Sherrill Milnes, but then he didn’t have to be.

If composer Lloyd Webber occasionally succeeded at clever imitation, his lyricist Richard Stilgoe specialized in the humdrum. His hymn to mindless optimism that is the musical’s grand finale, “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” gives commonplace a new and more precise definition. By comparison, it makes Oscar Hammerstein’s heart-clenching “You’ll Never Walk Alone” seem like the Te Deum.

This spiffy production, which plays through Dec. 31 at Civic Theatre, is highly recommended for children.