When the RZ was a young lad, one of his favourite toys was a set of Brio train blocks. He would spend hours putting them together and pulling the magnetic cars around, going through tunnels, and wishing that his mother would buy the drawbridge pieces. It is with this nostalgia running on high that he went to see the German production of the often mocked Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oft-maligned Starlight Express, now in its 18th year.
Plenty of others have panned the book in depth, and the RZ wishes to offer a counter. Starlight was written as a family show, and punters should not expect a great intellectual work. Instead, the story of engines and coaches racing for love and glory should be taken as presented: some highly imaginative and pleasant storytelling with a variety of lines (“You’ve got to keep him so that he can’t guess / when you are saying no but meaning yes”) nodding towards mum and dad. Such adult moments contributed heavily towards Starlight’s panning in the US, as they were written off as misogynist and out of place. Instead, such material gives the show an edge and prevents it from being too saccharine for grownups in the audience - nobody in this show is perfect, and it is the flaws that give depth.
The German translation, while odd in places, sings well. The Bochum producers have also been smart enough to avoid the endless revisions which plague the various English speaking productions, giving it a clarity and focus lacking elsewhere. As it stands, the only changes made since 1989 are the changing of “Only You” to “Next Time You Fall In Love” (rewritten here as “Alone in the Starlight”, which works far better), and the addition of the Trax characters, a pair of stunt skaters on roller blades vs. the rest of the cast’s quads.
The score, generally considered Webber’s worst, is remarkably catchy, and best compared to his work for Joseph, with hummable pop tunes such as "Rolling Stock", "A Light at the End of the Tunnel", and the lyrically panned "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D". Sadly, an upgrade to the theatre’s sound system over summer included the installation of virtual orchestra equipment, cutting the show’s band from 18 to 10. As a result, the large instrumental sequences (e.g. the four races) sound hollow and flat compared to the live cast recording issued over a decade ago. To add insult to injury, the orchestral reduction occurred simultaneously with a rise in ticket prices - something unforgivable in the RZ’s eyes.
Starlight Express’s true stars, however, are John Napier and David Hersey. Napier’s set, a dystopian monster of tracks and towers, provides plenty of room to skate in all directions, including the custom built theatre’s audience, but imposes upon the characters as a reminder that when all is said and done, a little boy rules over them all. Napier also designed the intricate costumes, responsible for his Tony award. Unfortunately, in a sign of weakness, the German production acquiesced and shifted the characters of the Rockies over to the 2003 tour’s Hip-Hoppers, which meant leaving their songs but using new, simplified (read: cheap looking) costumes which clash with the rest of the cast. David Hersey’s lighting is a kaleidoscopic gem, filled with colour and wonderment. Eighteen years after opening, these two men’s work continues to amaze, and is far more impressive than recent and costlier examples (the RZ is looking at you, Wicked, and your $14 million pricetag).
The cast at the RZ’s performance were truly international, coming primarily from London and Germany, with South American and other European members. All were talented singers and skaters, but Ernest Marchain’s Greaseball was appropriately sleazy, and Leanne Garrety sang wonderfully as Dinah. Carl Abraham Ellis plays a wise and kind Papa, and Jamie Golding a brash yet fragile Rusty. Unfortunately, Mr. Golding suffered an injury or illness at the performance the RZ attended, and was replaced for the second act by Nathan Sloan.
Lastly, while the RZ normally shuns the practice of making attendees buy programmes to get a cast list, Starlight’s is well worth the exorbitant €9 cost. For the money, punters get an A4 sized insert with the cast and crew information, an A3 sheet poster, and 64 oversized (A2?) pages of square bound full colour photos on heavy paper stock. What fans won’t get is any form of English synopsis - a great shame in the RZ’s eyes, as it meant he had to sit next to a loud and annoying woman who translated every other line for her boyfriend into Polish and couldn’t hand over the book to shut them up.
Overall, fans of technically enhanced theatre, lighthearted family shows, and escapism will adore Starlight Express (and have for over 20 years since the original London opening). Others will find it shallow, tacky, and a waste (and have for the same length of time). Falling firmly into the former camp, the RZ can not wait until he has the chance to return to Bochum and see this wonderful show again.
Where: Starlighthalle, Bochum, Germany
When: Times vary by day, check the website.
Cost: €30-€85, section prices vary by day.
Concessions: Students, seniors, and registered unemployed can get a sizeable discount on most ticket brackets when booking online or over the phone - the RZ got about €15 off his ticket in the Red section.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: €70. €5 were taken off for jacking the price for each Saturday show, and €10 for reducing the orchestra.
RZ Other Notes: When going, try to get the lower level centre first, then the three pods built into the stage. The sides are not as bad as implied on the seating plan, but the RZ wouldn’t recommend them for first timers. The theatre in Germany is custom built around the show, and the waiting area is decked out like a train station, serving as something of a museum with old costumes and props all around. There had been rumours in 2002 when the show closed in London that ALW was looking at doing similar for a revival a few years later, but nothing has since come of it. The RZ also feels he should note that once a year (usually in summer), the company has "Day of the Open Door", where fans can go backstage, participate in cosplay competitions, meet the cast, and see a special concert and tech display.