Regional Reviews: Seattle
Starlight Express at The Paramount
This venerable Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner Starlight Express has chugged into Seattle in this ill-conceived touring edition which boasts 3-D movie racing scenes (which are nothing to boast about, and in fact take away from the live theatre excitement that this Arlene Phillips directed and choreographed should be providing).
Always intended by Lloyd Webber to be a children's show, earlier editions of this tale of a plucky little steam train named Rusty racing against higher powered, newer model engines have varied the song list a bit but always had some pretty impressive, indeed breathtaking, staging to compensate for any really narrative tension inherent in the tale. But relying on the 3-D film sequences, competently directed by Julian Napier, for the various train race sequences gives the whole show a cheesy feeling that takes us away from theatre into a more generic sort of entertainment that is frankly better done by Disney or the Ice Capades. Though not specified exactly where, The Full Monty composer/lyricist David Yazbek augmented original lyricist Richard Stilgoe's lyric contributions, and while this score may not rank as one of ALW's best, it was also better served in earlier editions of the show. While many of the Lloyd Webber melodies remain appealing if derivative, Yazbek's are lyrics were, if anything, inferior to what existed in the show's original form.
A game young cast goes the distance in terms of energy and vocals, and a few standout. Franklin Warfield is an appealingly perky Rusty and has the pipes to deliver the warmly melodic title ballad. Katie O'Toole as Dinah the dining car has a comic flair and shows it off in the show's most fun number, the country western flavored "U-N-C-O-U-P-L-E-D." Dennis LeGree as Poppa, the Senior steam train who mentors Rusty, has the most accomplished voice in the cast and roused the opening night audience to cheers in his "Poppa's Blues" number and when leading the cast in the spirited "Light at the Wind of the Tunnel." As the show's fickle heroine, Pearl the observation car, Clarissa Grace seems to lack the vocal range required for her solo numbers. Dustin Dubreuil is appropriately over the top obnoxious as Electra the flamboyant (and apparently sexually ambivalent) electric train, Drue Williams seems to have modeled his diesel train Greaseball on early John Travolta, and Scott Bolt is most engaging as Dustin, the Hopper who helps Rusty win in the big final race.
Scenic and costume design elements by John Napier are bright and gaudy in a Vegas meets Disneyland sort of way, and Rick Belzer's lighting design hits a highpoint with a laser effect in the title number, but also has an annoying tendency to blind the audience.
The best way I can sum up what is wrong with this Starlight Express is that, on Broadway, I watched a large group of totally spellbound, inner city kids get caught up in ALW's children's musical. At the Paramount last night, I heard some young audience members at intermission, asking their parents "Can we go to Gameworks after this?" Clearly a sign that they weren't having a better time than the many bemused adults, myself included, who endured this off the track effort.Starlight Express runs through April 4 at The Paramount Theatre, 9th & Pine in downtown Seattle. For more information go to the Paramount online at www.theparamount.com. - David-Edward Hughes