Starlight Express isn’t full of the show-stoppers that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other works are known for, but it nonetheless packs some magic for the younger crowd. By LESLEY STONES.
The effort involved in pulling off a production of Starlight Express is phenomenal. It’s a major West End show demanding that the stage becomes a roller-rink, skating tracks run out into the audience, and that the cast can sing, dance, act a little, and most importantly, do it all on roller skates. Backwards too, sometimes.
That’s quite some task, and this all-South African crew does it brilliantly.
Starlight Express is a real display of boys and their toys on steroids, with spectacular effects including a multi-layered set, characters appearing in mid-air, skaters whizzing up, down and around and superb lighting to stoke the power-packed atmosphere.
There’s an immense amount of style, but don’t waste too much time searching for the substance.
In the first half I was underwhelmed, thinking it wouldn’t be much of a show at all if it weren’t for the novelty of the roller skates. The plot is thin, and Starlight doesn’t have any of the show-stopping numbers that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other productions do, like The Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. Starlight Express has lyrics like ‘Freight is Great’ and ‘See me hustle, feel my muscle.’ There’s the vaguely familiar refrain of Starlight Express echoing in the ether, but in this show the music isn’t the star attraction. It’s the energy, the whizz and the vibrancy of the whole production that makes it a winner, not the songs.
At the interval I found a seat closer to the front and the game moved up a several notches. Partly because the second half is way better then the rather flimsy first, but mostly because when a production relies so heavily on the visual impact, you’d better be close enough to actually enjoy it.
The story sees a race playing out between Rusty, the old fashioned steam train, against Electra, a new-fangled electric engine and Greaseball, a grimy American diesel. David Schlachter makes a very appealing Rusty, the good guy who has to learn to stand up against bullies to take his place and win his girl.
He has a lovely voice and moves delightfully, and gives Rusty a whimsical nature that wins the audience over.
Flirty Carly Graeme plays the fickle Pearl, a first-class coach who switches allegiances and has to pick between good boy Rusty or bad but strong boy Greaseball, with a brief flirtation with an express train in between. She commands the role well, using her great voice and range of emotions to help flesh out the part.
Some lovely and very welcome humour comes from Bongi Mthombeni as Poppa, a pooped-out old steam train, who gives Rusty the essential moral guidance of standing up for who you are and finding your inner strength to overcome adversity. Mthombeni clowns around delightfully while the others go through their angst or bravado.
Another lovely moment comes with One Rock ‘n Roll Too Many when the defeated cheats and bullies admit they’re reached the end of the line.
In previous productions the voice of Control, the little boy whose dreams the trains inhabit, has only been a voice that fills the auditorium. This local production has turned him into a character, played by Joshua Moreira on the opening night. It’s cute, but I think Lloyd Webber had it right – Control should be in our imaginations just as the trains are in his.
Choreographer Karen Bruce has done a great job in maximising the space and emphasising the acrobatics. The routines are neat and snappy, with a couple of rollerskating experts at the back adding some thrills with their acrobatics. Musical Director Clinton Zerf conducts an eight-piece band tucked into a corner of the orchestra pit, perilously close to the skaters above.
So was it worth the wait and hype, and is it worth R200-R380 per ticket?
Well, Lloyd Webber wrote Starlight Express to entertain and inspire his young son, in the days when kids played with toy trains rather than Playstations. But it still has the power to captivate the youngsters and introduce them to the magic of the theatre.
The script and lyrics don’t give the characters much meaty material to work with, but the special effects and the wonder of singers-on-wheels makes it all chug along enchantingly. DM
Starlight Express runs at Joburg Theatre until 1 September.
Photos: Mariole Biela