Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express is to the train shed what Toy Story was to the toy box. A child plays with his model trains in the darkness of his room, breathing colourful lives into them and pitting them against each other in dangerous and dynamic races. An outmoded and outdated “Little Engine that Could” named Rusty sets out to prove himself as a steam train in an ever-modernising world of electricity, win the heart of a cute carriage and crush the competition.
As you might have somehow worked out already, the plot is secondary to the spectacle, but that doesn't matter in the slightest. This is a wonderful theme park ride of a production, full of noise and smoke and light. Christine Daae never descended to the Phantom's layer on rollerskates, nor did Eva Peron reach out in glorious 3D to the descamisados beneath her balcony, but that's not the point. Phantom and Evita did the drama; Starlight finds the fun.
If Thomas the Tank and a bunch of Power Rangers entered Eurovision, they would undoubtedly sing a song from this gloriously camp musical. Lloyd Webber's music, sweet and flavoursome, is the best kind of bubblegum. Arlene Phillip's choreography is demanding and fun, and seats itself in first-class for challenging the cast to perform star-jumps in roller-skates alone.
Musical theatre performers dream of becoming and quietly hope for the undoing of those auditionees who class themselves as “triple threats”: they sing; they dance; they act. Add to the equation, please, a fourth threat, and give to each member of this cast a stripe on their safety padded arms: these people skate, in speed and style, as effortlessly and elegantly as a penguin on an ice sheet. Each member of the ensemble deserves a paragraph of this review, combining to produce a show which is so well-executed that it could wheel its way into the West End tomorrow.
This show's stars burn bright here, even in a piece which is so generous to its ensemble. Choreographer Mykal Rand is outstanding, a freight train of fab-u-lousness. as the bisexual electric train who goes both ways on AC/DC, finding his voice as the saviour of 1980s electro-pop and cleaner burning fuels. Kristofer Harding, too, hits some chilling notes as main train Rusty, impossibly likeable, tuneful and emotive as the whistle of a vintage locomotive.
And yet, there are moments when this otherwise perfect production goes off the rails. Yes, whilst this is a show which is predominantly aimed at children, and we, the “adults”, happily freighthop a ride, many of Richard Stilgoe's lyrics jar with senselessness. It is a shame too that John Napier's nonetheless impressive staging loses the drama of the race heats by showing the action on the 3D screen and emptying the stage. It is ironic that the most exciting moment is the show is somehow the least thrilling.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is probably not the kind of show that you will want to download onto your iPod and sing aloud with a glass of wine of a Friday evening but, in the heat of the moment, in the midst of that noise and spectacle, the roar of the greasepaint and the engines makes this both an unadulterated and unmissable show.
This is not another night at a roller-disco with your Xanadu cassette, passengers. Steam has the power in this show. Just try for a more environmentally friendly hero next time.