Review: Starlight Express

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Starlight Express’ story of anthropomorphised trains has undergone some extreme changes since it first rolled on to the stage in 1984. Fresh off the back of touring in the UK, the new cast and crew of Starlight have been eager to show off the revamped ‘3D’ (we’ll get to that later) version of the original Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, sticking loosely to the original plot: namely steam train Rusty competes against a diesel train and an electric train in a race that champions the fastest engine. Despite bullying remarks from the other trains, Rusty finds his strength and resolve in the form of Pearl, a carriage he falls in love with, and also in the power of the omnipresent Starlight Express, a thinly veiled metaphor for a religious figure (apparent in the existential lines ‘Starlight Expreeeeeeeess, are you there? Yes or noooooo?’).

We watch the high octane show at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on Sunday October 6. The show's main highlight is the rollerskating choreography, which is executed with flawless precision – the skates (as clunky as they are: no Maglev upgrades) spinning like blades on ice. There are a few high thrill stunts – flips in the air, turns on the half pipe – but it’s the synchronised dances that pull the loudest cheers. The show’s original choreographer, Arlene Phillips, clearly knows how to dazzle. The kids in the audience watch in silent awe.

Those who religiously listen to the popular 1992 soundtrack (different from the 1984 and the current soundtracks) will be sad to hear that several cuts have been made –  Next Time you Fall in Love (replaced by a song composed by Lloyd Webber’s son, I Do) being the most notable. Almost all the songs have undergone drastic rearrangements, making some sound slicker and heavier, with contemporary undertones of dubstep and electronica (hey Skrillex!). Some tunes, like Rusty’s rendition of Starlight Express, however, sound almost like the original and with good reason: that song is a spine-tingler.

The most apparent change is the absence of the skate tracks that once wound round the whole of the Apollo Theatre in London. During the race scenes, the trains would speed and collide down the tracks in tense contest, whizzing past the audience’s heads. Those scenes have been replaced by short film clips. This is where the 3D effects come in – but sadly a pair of polarising lenses and a shard of ‘glass’ coming at you does not an action sequence make. It’s strange, given the message of the show – that a steam train can power more energy by sheer heart and soul alone, surpassing the high-tech, robotic electric trains – that 3D is being used. Other additions, like the persistent voiceover of Control, a young American child playing with the trains, make it clear that Lloyd Webber has made these changes to cater for a younger crowd, which isn’t a negative point. It’s just different. 

A round of applause for Kristofer Harding, who plays Rusty’s wide-eyed naiveté and plucky determination down to a tee, and a mention also has to go out to Ruthie Stephen's Dinah, whose Southern twanged UNCOUPLED is pitch perfect – more than a few kids probably learnt how to spell a mild swear word on the night.

The trains may need a little more oiling and polish to court the popularity this show had in its West End run, but you have to give it to Lloyd Webber and his crew: it’s a production that tries extremely hard. It’s the little engine that could. Although not as classic as Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera or as heartfelt as his Evita, the show strikes all the right chords with kids and adults alike in its dazzling campy glory. And so the wheels keep on turning… Ysabelle Cheung

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