Starlight Express

Andrew Lloyd Webber with rollerskates and state-of-the-art 3D technology.
New Theatre, Oxford, Tue 11th - Sat 22nd December 2007

January 3, 2008
This rock-solid roller-skating musical has reinvented itself once again since opening at the Victoria Theatre in 1984, now projecting film in 3D onstage to recreate the atmosphere of two heats and one final race between the all-singing and dancing trains. A young boy starts the locomotive contest by playing with his toy train set before bedtime. The quest to find out whether diesel, steam or electric power pushes the pace of the fastest show on earth carries on in his dreams. Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics (‘Freight is great’), work with the dance moves to form a lean, mean machine. This Lloyd Webber musical embodies the quintessential musical theatre character of the mid 1980s - electric train 'Electra' is lowered onto the stage like the piece of machinery she is to the ice cool song ‘AC/DC’. Mykal Rand makes a bodacious Electra and is also the resident director for this exhilarating production. The round stage is often swirled across by four gorgeous coaches who effortlessly shimmer light and shade in their voices. Buffy, Dinah, Ashley and Pearl all strut Arlene Phillips’ sassy ‘Hot Gossip’ style of choreography wearing high cut costumes from the Vegas tour to the number ‘A Whole Lotta Locomotion’. Contemporary stunts such as 360 degree body flips are injected using inline skates and on-stage ramps. The audience wears 3D ‘safety goggles’ during the film sequences, which replace the purpose-built ramps used in the West End, creating the image of urban debris flying overhead. The audience ducks whilst ex-champion Poppa wins a qualifying heat only to become exhausted and pass the honour on to his underdog son, Rusty the steam train.

Lovable Rusty (a crystal-voiced Kris Harding) tolerates the bullying tactics of Electra and diesel train Greaseball (an enigmatic Tom Kanavan). The Hip Hoppers bust exciting moves verging on contemporary dance, cheering Rusty up with the tune ‘Right Place, Right Time’. Facing the prospect of racing without his sweetheart Pearl, Rusty draws on the spiritual power of ‘Starlight Express’ in a spine-tingling moment, asking the brave question: ‘Are you real?’. The power of the live band and Howard Eaton’s lighting for the Starlight Sequence brings gasps even to this diehard Starlight fan. By the end of the two hour long show, young and old are dancing in their seats to ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ with synchronised hand actions to testify to the power of steam.

Based upon Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry’s Railway Series of books, there are echoes of the Cinderella story as Pearl despairs of her chances of joining back up with her beau. Electra and Greaseball collapse with train-like motion after ‘One Rock 'N' Roll Too Many’ like two ugly sisters. Dinah has been ‘U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D’ from race companion Greaseball in a hilarious Tammy Wynette pastiche. The tough talking voice of ‘Control’ that dictates race procedure throughout the show shows no sympathy. However, Michael Samuel’s faith-inspiring rendition of the lyrics ‘Only you have the power within you’ lifts the audience’s spirits (and glow sticks) high. All aboard the mythical magical train for Lloyd Webber’s finest tune, ‘I am the Starlight’. Shine on.

December 29, 2007
This rock solid roller-skating musical has reinvented itself once again since opening at the Victoria Theatre in 1984, now projecting 3D film to recreate two heats and one final race between the all-singing and dancing trains. A young boy starts the locomotive contest by playing with his toy train set before bedtime. The quest to find out whether diesel, steam or electric power pushes the pace of the fastest show on earth carries on in his dreams. Richard Stilgoe’s lyrics, such as ‘Freight is great’, like the dance moves work like a lean, mean machine. This Lloyd Webber musical contains the quintessential musical theatre character of the mid 1980’s, Electra who is lowered onto the stage like a piece of machinery to the ice cool song ‘AC/DC’. Mykal Rand cuts a classy electric train as Electra and is also the resident director for this electrifying production. The round stage is often swirled by four gorgeous coaches; Buffy, Dinah, Ashley and Pearl who all strut Arlene Phillips’ sassy ‘Hot Gossip’ style of choreography to the number ‘A Whole Lotta Locomotion’. Pearl (Gemma Atkins) has a classic musical theatre voice and carries amazing lines through her body even though the moves are worked on skates. Contemporary stunts such as 360 degree body flips are injected using inline skates and on-stage ramps. The danger of the manoeuvres brings an exciting edge to the performance. The audience wears 3D ‘safety goggles’ during the film sequences, which replace the purpose built ramps used in the West End, creating the image of urban debris flying overhead. The audience ducks whilst unlikely candidate Poppa wins a qualifying heat only to find he is exhausted and passes the honour on to underdog Rusty the steam train.

Lovable Rusty, portrayed by the crystal clear vocals of Kris Harding, tolerates the bullying tactics of Electra and diesel train Greaseball, played by the enigmatic Tom Kanavan. The Hip Hoppers, who bust exciting moves that verge on contemporary dance, cheer Rusty up with the tune ‘Right Place, Right Time’. Facing the prospect of racing without his sweetheart Pearl, Rusty turns to the spiritual power of ‘Starlight Express’ and asks the perennial question ‘Are you Real?’ The power of the live band and Howard Eaton’s lighting for the Starlight Sequence brings gasps even to the most diehard Starlight fan. By the end of this 2 hour long show, young and old are dancing in their seats to ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ with synchronised hand actions to testify to the power of steam.

Based upon Rev Wilbert Vere Awdry’s Railway Series of books, the path to victory is far from straight forward. Electra and Greaseball collapse with train like motion after ‘One Rock N Roll Too Many’. Dinah has been ‘U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D’ from race companion Greaseball in a hilarious Tammy Wynette pastiche. Rusty cannot be found to complete a lap of honour, he has the task of making up with Pearl, the observatory carriage, who looks stunning in candy coloured iridescent leotard. This Third Dimension version has the high-legged style of costumes used in the Las Vegas tour. Starlight veterans see the songs ‘Crazy’ and ‘The Megamix’ added to the show since the 1990’s re-vamp. Ultimately this is about an underdog beating the odds through self belief. Humming the stirring melody 'Only He' the words seem to revert to "only we" have the power within us! This is especially true after hearing the faith inspiring vocals of Michael Samuels as Poppa. All aboard the mythical midnight train.
Upon collecting our tickets to see Starlight Express we were also handed a pair of ‘safety goggles’ which we were told we would ‘definitely be needing’. The New Theatre was almost completely full and it was lovely to see that a large proportion of the audience were under sixteen. It is a testament to the engaging nature of the show that there was not a hint of any disruption due to shuffling, giggling or rustling of sweet wrappers – at least from where I was sitting.

Although the storyline is a bit lightweight it is fluid, crowd-pleasing and told with a high dose of the spectacular. Unlike some other musicals the pace in Starlight Express is relentless, only pausing a couple of times for ballads, all performed with accuracy, a wink and a nudge. The leading couple, Rusty (Kristofer Harding) and Pearl (Gemma Atkins) are both effortlessly excellent singers; so much so that for quite a while I suspected that they couldn’t skate and had been imported for their voices. Not so!

It is hard not to admire the cast as they fill the entire stage with speeding acrobatics which leave you not knowing where to look next. Indeed, at times I forgot that they were using skates at all - the dancing would have been impressive in itself. All this spectacle is enhanced by fantastic costumes and a simple but futuristic stage, let down only occasionally by poor set changes.

Musically Starlight Express is not going to win any awards, but then I don’t think it’s trying to. The show is a fast paced journey through different styles from hip-hop and blues to rock and country. In the first half Poppa’s Blues stands out, helped along by Michael Samuels’ powerful blues-style voice. For me the best of the show was, in the second half, the hilarious country and western number U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.

In short if you want a loud, all engaging, fast paced, high spectacle show which is pulled-off with ease by talented performers than this is for you. If you love Lloyd-Webber you will love Starlight Express, if you don’t – give it a go and be ready to be entertained.
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