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THE SELLING OF 'STARLIGHT EXPRESS' : New Broadway Musical Shows the Efficiency of an Electronic Heart

March 16, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

NEW YORK — "Starlight Express" docked at the Gershwin Theatre Sunday night after a long run in London. It is a horrid show. But not an inept one. It knows exactly what it's doing. That's what makes you uneasy.

It suggests that Broadway has just about given up on old-fashioned hand-tooled human-sized theater and intends to specialize in computerized musical spectacles designed, literally, to run "now and forever."

And it suggests that today's Broadway audience, besotted with electronic entertainment, will buy such arena shows-in-disguise as the real thing. The applause at Friday's preview was mild, and yet everybody on the escalator was agreed that they had been given a terrific evening's entertainment.

Technically, these packages have a distance to go. In the future, they will all be operated from one central control booth in Shubert Alley ("Control!" is a leitmotif in "Starlight Express") and will be performed by animatronic figures who only need a change of battery pack to do 10 performances a day.

For now, they need human performers. This show even has a performer we know, Andrea McCardle, all grown up from "Annie." She plays a smoking car named Ashley. (The show's nominal subject is railroad trains.)

At least they tell us it's Andrea McCardle. She and her colleagues so resemble action figures from Mattel Toys that it's possible to imagine they've been cloned, with their originals in cold storage in Secaucus, N.J., pending further use when it's time to engender a national company.

Depend on it, there'll be one. This show has everything that a mass audience could want: lights, noise, meaningless action and a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber. And the audience doesn't have to do anything but sit there and take it in. (Which accounts for the listless applause.) It will look great in the TV commercials. It is TV.

There'll be an international company too. "Starlight Express" will be a huge hit in Tokyo, particularly if they don't translate it. For the listener handicapped by English, Richard Silgoe's lyrics supply a wince with every quatrain. ("By myself . . . I have to cry myself." "Climb aboard . . . I'll treat you like a lord.") Verbally, we have a new genre here--the remedial musical.

But there's nothing rudimentary about John Napier's set and David Hershey's interstellar lighting. Thanks to these artists, "Starlight Express" does succeed, from time to time, in knocking your eyes out. Watching its sound and fury at the Gershwin, one was reminded of Chesterton's remark about the lights of Broadway: "A beautiful sight, if you can't read."

The show was inspired, way back, by "The Little Engine That Could." When director Trevor Nunn climbed aboard, it was decided to have the racing railroad engines played by roller skaters. At the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London last year, the impression was that the metaphor had got out of hand.

We kept being reminded that this was the story of a timid little steam engine gamely trying to compete with a greasy diesel (who looked like Elvis Presley) and an androgynous electric (who looked liked David Bowie).

But all that an American visitor could think of was roller derby, including the dirty business on the turns. Everybody was in kneepads and some kind of plastic armor. Nobody looked vulnerable or sympathetic.

On Broadway, everybody looks positively sinister. Napier has further dehumanized the costumes, with references to NFL uniforms and astronauts' suits. When this gang starts clenching its collective fist skywards--even our little hero, Rusty (Greg Mowry) does it--it's not about Going For It. It's about fascism.

Along with that goes the treatment of women in the show. Even more so than in London, they are presented as sniveling bimbos whose biggest tragedy is to get "uncoupled" from the powerful males who pull them around. When one of the males takes a header at the turn, they beat on his head and look for someone more dynamic.

At the same time our hearts are supposed to melt when one of the girls belts out a ballad. It's clearer in the Broadway version of "Starlight Express" that the whole thing is supposed to be taking place in the imagination of a 9-year-old boy playing with his train set--but there's more junky love stuff than a 9-year-old boy would tolerate.

When the show addresses itself to ideas, we do sense a 9-year-old mind at work. Rusty's dealings with the all-seeing spirit of the "Starlight Express" out there in the Great Beyond makes Oscar Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone" sound tough-minded. (But Hersey's Milky Way effects are as good as a planetarium.)

Like Webber's score, the story has been pumped up for Broadway. It still doesn't make any sense--but in new ways. It's clearer now what Rusty is doing in the last heat of the race. But why the big fuss when he disappears with the Silver Dollar, since he won it? If Napier's set had constructed as shoddily as this script, it never would have made code.

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