Whilst Andrew Llyod Weber’s Starlight Express may not be as well-known as his other works such as The Phantom of the Opera, it was lauded in its day for its unique staging and ran for nearly 18 years in the West End . Originally conceived in 1984, the musical tells the story of a young boy’s toy trains which come to life and race against one another. Of course, the trains are actually played by the cast performing entirely on roller-skates.
The main protagonist is Rusty the steam engine, the underdog of the race whose ultimate goal is to win first place and earn the affections of first-class carriage Pearl. Along the way, he is challenged by the diesel engine Greaseball and Electra, a glitzy electric engine. No guesses for who finally emerges champion. After a 2012 tour of the UK and 2013 run in Hong Kong, Starlight Express finally makes its debut in Singapore. And of course, the question is-is it worth all the hype?
Acting-wise, I found there to be generally strong and consistent performances from the cast all round. Kristofer Harding definitely delivered in the lead role, portraying Rusty in all his wide-eyed innocence and determination to succeed. No complaints about his smooth, clear vocals either. Another strong performance would be from the cast member who played Poppa, an old steam engine who serves as a mentor to Rusty. Judging from the audience’s reactions, he was certainly a crowd-favourite thanks to his infectious charm and personality.
That aside, Leanne Garretty’s performance as Pearl was not as emotionally resonant as I would have liked it to be. Her solo number ‘ Make up my heart’ , in which she has to decide between Rusty and Greaseball, did not quite reflect the inner conflict her character was facing. I also felt that Greaseball,an engine with an Elvis-like Persona , could have carried out his hip gyrating moves with more gusto. But perhaps performing on roller-skates coupled with the heavy costumes prevented him from doing so.
The casts’ efforts in performing entirely on roller-skates must also be applauded. They glided around effortlessly, save for one breakdancing sequence in which there was a minor stumble. The combination of dance choreography with skating was also surprisingly seamless and well-executed. My only gripe was that the stunts were rather lacklustre and were not actually done by the cast members themselves-there was only one stunt performer who did occasional flips. The 3D race sequences shown on film were also confusing and difficult to follow.
As for the songs, they were not quite as memorable Weber’s more prominent works. Though tunes like ‘Starlight Express’ and the gospel sounding feel-good number ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ were catchy, they never quite stick in your mind like ‘Memory’ from the musical Cats. The musical genre might have something to do with it as well. Most of the songs had rock-and-roll and western influences, which would arguably have garnered more appreciation back in the 80s than today.
Therein lies the challenge of trying to keep a musical relevant for a new audience, whilst at the same time retaining its essence. What I did enjoy though, was the finale number where snippets of all the songs were incorporated.
All in all, whilst Starlight Express is not exactly mind-blowing, there’s no doubt that kids will by kept entertained by its special effects and comic segments. What it lacks in terms of lyrics and plot, it tries earnestly to make up for with warmth, energy and heart.
Date: 13 November to 24 November 2013
Timings: Tue – Fri: 7.30pm Sat & Sun: 2pm & 7.30pm