Wow! Roller-skating extravaganza bids for audiences of all ages

Starlight Express Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Richard Stilgoe (lyrics). Directed by Trevor Nunn. Choreography by Arlene Phillips. ``Starlight Express'' defies gravity, grown-up logic, and critical preconceptions. It is a fantasy for wide-eyed children and susceptible grown-ups, a music video expanded to the full dimensions of the Gershwin Theatre and the continental limits of the United States. It is perpetual motion to pop-rock music performed by an astonishing company of roller skating singer-dancers, who never seem to run out of energy or breath as they careen across John Napier's landscape of hills and dales and suddenly constructed bridgework. It is high-tech razzle-dazzle with an $8 million production price tag.

What composer Andrew Lloyd Webber says began as a child's fantasy about a railroad train has become a fabulous tribute to the driving engines of double-tracked locomotion: steam, diesel, and electric.

``Starlight Express'' has been a London hit since its opening in 1984.

In its American version, the story remains as simple as the voice-over imaginings of the unseen little boy (Braden Danner) who dreams up the bedtime story and serves as train caller for the heats of the great train race that ensues. Elementally, the race pits Rusty (Greg Mowry), the faithful steam engine, against muscular diesel Greaseball (Robert Torti) and electric Electra (Ken Ard).

The anthropomorphic cast of characters numbers freights as well as international expresses. There are good guys like Dustin (Michael Scott Gregory) and old steamer Poppa (Steve Fowler), and bad guys like two-faced Red Caboose (Barry K. Bernal), who proves to be Rusty's collision-causing nemesis.

The feminine passenger cars drawn by the several engines include Pearl (Reva Rice), Dinah (Jane Krakowski), Ashley (Andrea McArdle), and Buffy (Jamie Beth Chandler).

Decked out in Mr. Napier's gadgety costumes, the performers all figure in the progress of the contest and all skate like mad to execute Arlene Phillips's intricate choreography.

Even madder and more astonishing are the Rockys (Frank Mastrocola, Sean Grant, Ronald Garza, and Angel Vargas), whose acrobatics bring down the house in ``Right Place, Right Time.''

Which brings up the super-album of songs with which Mr. Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe unfold this mostly musical musical. The score is a m'elange of styles and influences - from heavy rock to rhythm and blues, country, torch ballad, and comic ditty. The rocking-rolling roller skaters prove equal to every demand, whether called on to sing as they speed around the tracks or to pause momentarily in a spotlight.

The tunes serve their purpose pleasantly enough, though I didn't detect at first hearing a signature number comparable to ``Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'' from ``Evita,'' or ``Memories'' from ``Cats.'' But it's altogether possible to miss such a candidate in the flow of traffic on and off the Gershwin's expensively reconstructed stage. There's no doubt, however, that when ``Starlight Express'' caps its tricks with ``Light at the End of the Tunnel,'' the audience has been caught up in the magic, excitement, exuberance, and showmanship of this extraordinary extravaganza.

The orchestra pit, incidentally, has vanished from the Gershwin to make room for a couple of forestage curves.

The cast is resoundingly accompanied by 24 instrumentalists, conducted by Paul Bogaev, playing in a specially designed acoustical ``orchestra room.'' Indeed, the theater itself seems at times like a reverberating acoustical chamber.

As for visuals, just as Napier's illustrated relief map represents all 50 states, David Hersey's lighting can shine up through the translucent stage flooring, blaze with strobe effects, fill a black night with stars, and perform all manner of phenomenal illumination.

Ordinarily, it is not the purpose of these reports to make recommendations. In this case, however, I feel safe in urging: Children, take a grandfather (related or borrowed) to ``Starlight Express.'' He'll love it!

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