STAGE REVIEW : A High-Tech ‘Starlight’ Pulls Into the Pantages


OK, enough bad-mouthing of “Starlight Express.” Somebody had to come up with this show. And if that someone was going to be anyone, it might as well be Andrew Lloyd Webber and those technological wizards at the Really Useful Theatre Company. Who else would be better equipped to give us the superconductor version of “The Little Engine That Could”?

This is “Star Wars” on Wheels, folks. The Great Train Race on roller skates. Not only that, but this Nederlander/Columbia Artists/Concerts International/Pace Theatricals touring production of “Starlight” that opened at the Pantages Theatre Thursday is a slimmed down, tighter transmutation of the original. And all to the good. In this one, part of the racing shows up on screen in a clever intercutting of live and filmed action. It only adds to the tongue-in-cheek, the grain of salt that you have to marshal to accept this show--assuming you want to accept it at all.

Did someone say “soulless”? What do you mean, “heartless”? Little Guy wins out over Big Guy, heartless? Good conquers Evil, soulless? More amazing still: This is the first show to really fit the Pantages. And, yes, it’s glitzy, metallic, humanoid fun, if you like circuses and if your heart is under 12, whatever age the rest of you may be.

“Starlight Express” is a sound and light show. Plus. The music? It sounds like disco. The story? It’s a refashioning of that oldie-but-goodie about this little steam train, Rusty (Sean McDermott), who huffs and puffs his way to victory in a race with slicker models, eventually knocking out the electrified, Dieselized, computerized competition. The songs (Richard Stilgoe did the lyrics)? Predictable and--er--racy, in the literal sense. Realism? Forget it. This is action fairy-tale time.


On that level, it’s hard not to gawk at the sheer cosmic wonders of David Hersey’s lighting effects (supersensational ones with laser beams and dry ice) or his army of performing lights (they swivel in unison). And one would have to be pretty dead not to thrill at John Napier’s chrome-plated Captain Marvel costumes or his swirling, Roller Derby track that figure-eights right out into the audience.

But there’s more. Such as those roller-skating cast members who have a grand time swooping and sliding and sashaying, playing characters with such lip-smacking names as Greaseball (Ron DeVito), Espresso (Steven Cates), Electra (the loose-limbed Eric Clausell), Hashamodo (Glenn Shiroma), Weltschaft (Fred Tallaksen), Krupp (Nelson Yee), Turnov (Steven K. Dry), Volta (Kimberly A. Gladman) and Wrench (Renee Lynette Chambers).

These are not quite as mouth-watering as T.S Eliot’s cat names in “Cats,” but they aim for the same effect. There are other characters with more prosaic monikers, such as Red Caboose (Todd Lester) and the inspirational Poppa (Jimmy Lockett). But after a while you stop noticing and just go with the flow.

Flow--fluidity--is the essence of Arlene Phillips’ roller-skating choreography. She also directed this touring version (largely recreating Trevor Nunn’s original staging), which maximizes the humor by bringing it close to home. “Rolling Stock,” the opening number, sees the “trains” flying their national flags, including the California state flag. The big bully, Greaseball, is clearly marked “Union Pacific” (a social comment here?), and if you watch the road signs in the filmed portions of the races, you’ll notice “Flagstaff” and “Pomona” and “Welcome to Los Angeles” right up there with the rest.

This is a key to “Starlight’s” express intent: to amuse for a while and to dazzle. It does both. Don’t look for depth. Even the love interest (yes, there is one) is about as deep as Barbie’s and Ken’s. But it’s also hardly the point. Plotwise, you wouldn’t want anything serious now, would you? Not any more than in “Cats” or in “Phantom of the Opera,” for that matter. This show is all about what hits the eye and to a lesser extent the ear. It is not about what hits any deeper regions of the psyche. “Starlight Express” doesn’t reach there. But taken at sheer face value, it’s a kick.

At 6233 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 3. Ends April 1. The show then moves to the Orange County Performing Arts Center April 3-15. Tickets: $20-$47.50; (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.