It sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it? A poor teenage boy whose sole skill, one deemed useless by everyone he knows, catapults him into fame, heroism, and courage enough to claim the girl he loves tugs at the tear ducts at the very thought. The isolation, the insecurity, then the incredulity, and finally the acceptance of his unique purpose in life... it all just seems to sing.
Unfortunately, wonderful concepts don’t always make wonderful musicals. When the boy’s skill is videogaming and when his grand destiny is to destroy the intergalactic tyrant Zur, the epic emotional possibilities of a stage success vanish as though sucked out an airlock. This is Fred Landau and Skip Kennon’s The Last Starfighter, based on the 1984 film and playing through the end of the week at the Theatre at St. Clement’s as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival - it’s a show too heartfelt to hate, but too hokey to love.
Despite Elizabeth Lucas’s direction, which is graced with considerable panache and straight-faced sincerity, The Last Starfighter is never able to overcome the essential silliness of its premise. Epic space battles can only be hinted at with lights (Herrick Goldman) and suggestive choreography (David Eggers); we follow the progress of hero-to-be Alex Rogan (Danny Binstock) up the high-score list of the video game Starfighter by watching his trailer-park family and friends watch him and then comment to us. The excitement seems manufactured at best, and Tempest in a tea ball at worst.
Presenting these things onstage would be challenging, even with a budget of $15 million and 50 cast members (neither of which, for the record, this production has). But without them, there’s no way to adequately convey Alex’s accomplishment as a videogame whiz in a year (1983) when such things still carried the mystique of conquering a new frontier, or of achieving an untapped potential and diligence that’s crucial for conveying the promise Alex’s lower-class upbringing has tamped down.
On film, special effects and close-ups on arcade machines made telling this story a snap, leaving you more free to accept a nobody becoming the galaxy’s savior overnight. Onstage, you must have all this explained to you, and the first rule of playwriting is that showing is infinitely more interesting than telling. The Last Starfighter is laden with a lot of the latter.
Landau’s book tries to smooth over the fundamental storytelling problems by framing Alex’s story as one told by Alex’s publicity-hungry trailer-park neighbors, allowing them to be drawn into events’ recreations, though this further distances us from Alex’s specific quest for himself and lasting love with his girlfriend Maggie (Nora Blackall), whom he’s sure he’s not good enough for. Landau also magnifies and tightens the theme of the eternal war between father and son, by focusing on Alex’s own father abandoning him, Alex finding a surrogate replacement in the kind alien Centauri (Joseph Kolinski) who recruits him for his crack gaming abilities, and the dastardly Zur (Ryan Jesse), who has Milky Way-sized father issues of his own.
The care Landau has taken in retaining the moving spirit of the original film is not matched by Kennon, whose songs generally reduce expressions of feeling and plot points alike into animated sequences. A caffeinated-cheese opening (“Starlite, Starbrite”), a liquidy quartet for four women (“Love Is Like Water”), a tribute to “Spring Break” by a gaggle of cavorting and half-naked teenagers, and a first-act hat-and-cane finale (with an actual cane, wielded by Patrick O. Henney as Alex’s insufferable younger brother, Louis) recounting an alien spy’s fateful flight prevent The Last Starfighter from finding an appropriate sound or tone. Only the second-act duet for Alex and Maggie, “Reach Out,” tapping into the pain of soul mates separated by several light years, seems to definitively belong in either this story or this musical.
The cast members are likewise all over the star chart. Binstock and Blackall make fine romantic leads, but bring too much maturity and severity to a duo willing to take the chances they are because they’re young and don’t yet have anything to lose. As Centauri, Kolinski does a masterful impression of Robert Preston’s amiable film performance. Jesse is too pretty-boy suave to convince as either Zur or Alex’s Earth rival Blake; Don Mayo is capable as both the narrator and a Zur resistance leader; Adinah Alexander, Janet Carroll, and Mary Ellen Ashley bring plenty of verve to Alex’s mother and two left-behind women in the trailer park.
I first encountered this show three years ago, with a largely different cast and somewhat different design scheme. While much has been rewritten since, very little has changed: The Last Starfighter remains the theatrical equivalent of Ms. Pac-Man: action, cut sequences, a great deal of fun, and dissolving into utter meaninglessness the instant you step outside. Such things are fine for an arcade game, where you never have to sacrifice more than a quarter. But with higher prices, higher stakes, and higher expectations in the theatre, it’s much more serious that this open-hearted show, despite all it wants to do and all it does right, never blasts off.
Venue: The Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46th street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues