Arts » Theater

Hell on Wheels

As stocking stuffers go, Starlight Express shovels the coal.

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When folks visit during the holidays, they'll bring food to share, and inevitably there will be an item that tastes as awful as it looks. But you'll smile and endure, knowing it's the thought that counts. Well, the good people at Playhouse Square Center fling open their doors to greet touring shows, and the concoctions that arrive are usually delicious and often memorable. Then along comes the new version of Starlight Express -- a large, offensive, indigestible ball of Broadway cheese that you should steer clear of like Uncle Earl's fruitcake. And if it's the thought that counts, what on earth were the producers of this show thinking?

When it opened in London in 1984, Starlight was dazzling, since all the actors (portraying railroad engines and cars) were on skates, literally racing around the audience on a track equipped with gates and whirling lights. That was exciting fluff, and it became the second-longest-running show in England. In the mid-'90s, the touring version had a small track extending a few rows into the audience, which wasn't nearly as thrilling. And now we have the new-millennium Starlight, employing fuzzy 3D movie segments to convey the choo-choo races. At this rate, in 10 years the entire show will be shown on slides, with a guy wearing Captain Penny's brakeman hat holding the clicker.

The story of Starlight is supposed to be a little boy's fantasy, rolling along the same tracks as The Little Engine That Could, as poor steam-engine Rusty tries to fend off the powerful and sexy diesel and electric trains, which are vying for the affections of the passive female cars. Setting sexism, juvenile male psychology, and logic aside (it isn't easy), the songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe chug from rock to blues, tracing the predictable arc of Rusty's struggle to win the heart of Pearl, an observation car. When a race is about to begin, the audience is told to don its 3D glasses and stare at a blurry film supposedly showing the characters speeding through what appear to be subterranean tunnels. The only 3D effects that work are when the film cuts away to a close-up of a random rodent (Eek, a bat! Eek, a mouse!). Plus, the film is so dark and muddy, you can't tell who wins, so the name of the winner is posted on the screen. You know you're in trouble when a play comes with subtitles.

Sure, there are a couple of cute songs, such as the country parody "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D." and the comically exhausted "One Rock and Roll Too Many," sung by Rusty's defeated rivals. But overcranked music and lots of klieg lights flashing in your eyes don't equal enjoyment. And in an era of extreme skating, with kids launching triple spins off half-pipes and sticking the landings, watching some actors glide up and down a couple of eight-foot-tall stage ramps is about as exciting as trying to scrape the remnants of Aunt Edna's ribbon candy off your teeth.

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