By Shayla Brinkerhoff
When Andrew Lloyd Webber imagined a stage production of a little boy’s dream about his toy trains, he couldn’t have imagined that it would become one of the longest-running broadway shows in history. Nor could he have imagined, in 1984, that it would soon have its own purpose-built theatre in Germany, where it has now been performed for thirty years (and counting). Starlight Express opens with a mellow scene of a young boy (Kjeld Leis) in pajamas, racing his trains. His mother calls him to bed, and what follows is anything but mellow. The audience is taken into the boy’s dream, where the race continues. Each of the train engines comes to life as flesh-and-blood embodiments of their mechanical personas, on roller-skates. It came as no surprise to me that Webber’s inspiration for Starlight Express was a television adaptation of Thomas the Tank Engine that never got off the ground. As a mother of small boys, I am well acquainted with the theatrics of that preschool-geared cast. These engines and their coaches are just as dramatic and contentious, with a much more adult vibe.
I never again saw the little boy in whose head I had taken up residence, but heard his voice frequently as if on a P.A. system. He announced the rules of a competition that would determine the fastest train in the world. As he was calling out the names of the engines and coaches, I realized just how immersive this play would be. The actors appeared with a roar of roller skates from the back of the auditorium, zooming down the aisles and up ramps onto the stage. It was soon apparent that a bathroom break would require taking my life into my hands.
With a cast of over three-dozen, it is impossible to make note of more than the key players. First is Greaseball (Caleb Hunt), a clear caricature of Elvis Presley. He is followed by a fawning quartet of coaches, Pearl (Lillian VanDaam), Dinah (Sara Larsen), Buffy (Lily Parris), and Duvay (Nicole Bustos). Behind batting eyelashes, we soon learn that each of these cars has her own agenda. Several other engines from around the world enter. Most notable of these is the rockstar Electra (Connor Talbot), who comes in fashionably late with his grand celebrity entourage. Interspersed with the strutting peacocks are a number of supporting cast members who provide comic relief. Several freight trains step in to assert their place as engines, if not on the racetrack (Boston Anglesey as Caboose, Shayelin Byington as Dusty, and Devin Reynolds as Flat Top). A trio of “hip-hoppers” also joins in on the fun (Preston McKenna, Paige Wardle, and Preston Barnette).
Most important of all, Rusty (Ammon Smith) the lowly steam engine tries to assert his place at the table. Outdated and dingy in comparison to the flashy modern engines, he is the laughing-stock of the “real” competitors. He yearns not only to be crowned the fastest engine in the world, but to win the heart of Pearl the coach car in the process. Alternately scrappy and self-doubting, we watch him receive multiple pep-talks from Poppa (Gus Scott), who injects welcome levity throughout the show. Ultimately it is Rusty’s faith in the mystical Starlight Express that will decide his fate.
The casting of each lead truly highlights their unique abilities. Lillian VanDaam’s exceptional voice shone repeatedly throughout, in numbers such as “He’ll Whistle at Me” and “Make Up My Heart.” Ammon Smith’s stage presence seemed to grow right along with his character’s confidence, his vocals well-matched to hers in the show’s climax, “I Do.” Caleb Hunt and Connor Talbot both seemed to take great joy in their outrageously narcissistic roles, each inspired by musical megastars. McKenna, Wardle, and Barnette’s hip-hopper acrobatics made me loath to leave during intermission, as they dared one another to increasingly gutsy stunts on the halfpipe. In my favorite number, Gus Scott lead both the cast and audience in the rollicking gospel music-inspired “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” complete with dancing in the aisles and clapping to the beat.
Starlight Express is an optical delight, an experience that must be seen to be believed. Anyone unfamiliar with Uintah High School’s theatre program might suppose that an amateur production would fall far short of Broadway’s glitz, but I was astounded at the quality of both the costumes and set. The style denotes the era in which the play was written, with big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, and eye-watering colors. Each piece is masterfully intricate and unique. The mother-daughter team of Pat Havey (head seamstress) and Linda Cochran (costume designer) made possible the professional-level quality. Though volunteering their time like the rest of the production staff, they bring many years of professional experience to the table. Cochran took inspiration from the costumes of the German theatre that has performed the play for three decades. Along with their team of more than two-dozen additional volunteers, they glued, sanded, and painted each article. Havey told me the process was “more crafting than sewing.” Their job was made even more difficult when, in the process of rehearsing for hours each day, many cast members had to have their costumes taken in. The costumers’ efforts are well-complemented by a team of nine makeup artists. Readying the actors is an hours-long process, as each cast member’s makeup is as individualized and detailed as the costumes.
The set itself is simple, yet impressive. Enormous lighting panels stand three rows deep, framing the stage from ceiling to floor and curtain to curtain like a series of proscenium arches. They do most of the work of providing ambience, turning off and on in whatever combination of colors best suits the mood (by student lighting technician Izen Merrell). There are virtually no props, only a giant half-pipe set at the back of the stage, with ramps that flank either side and continue straight out the back of the auditorium. Each of the many races require the actors to lap the auditorium and stage, soaring down the aisles at breathtaking speed. I thought Starlight Express an elegant choice in highlighting all that the new auditorium has to offer, and look forward to seeing many more productions in this updated venue.
The first feature to strike any newcomer to Starlight Express is undoubtedly the roller skates. A teen on roller-skates in the 21st century is a rarity, and this play features 40 of them. These kids are not merely competent; they are racing, dancing, jumping, and crashing (when the plot requires), on their skates, singing all the time. The sheer ambition of such a feat is astounding; the delivery is jaw-dropping. Some Uintah High students purchased their own roller-skates last summer, as soon as Starlight Express was announced. But the mastery of these actors was made possible by their coach, Clark Madsen. Madsen is a professional-level roller-skater who was scouted by the director/choreographer duo Chris and Barbera Piner. Madsen told me the story of being approached by them at a skating rink in Sandy, where he was asked to drive hundreds of miles to Vernal to teach an unknown cast of teenagers to perform on wheels—in under two months. Madsen had taught many people to skate in his 35 years of experience, but this was a whole new ballgame.
In addition to their nightly three-hour rehearsals, students attended supplementary skating practices on Saturdays. Madsen made the drive to Vernal four times for eight-hour sessions of gruelling instruction. Because the play features engines coupled with coaches, the actors are often skating conga-line style, which sometimes caused large pile-ups. Several people were pleased to tell me “no broken bones! And only a few concussions.” Ultimately, Madsen was immensely proud of the cast, saying “I’ve never had a group that learned so quickly.” Barbera Piner added, “It really brings tears to my eyes to see how brave these kids were, just to pick it up and keep going. It taught them to be more confident and overcome obstacles. That’s something they will take with them beyond the play.”
Starlight Express is ostensibly family friendly, although there are subtly suggestive lines throughout. The children for whom such content is inappropriate are very unlikely to grasp the double entendres. Greaseball’s Elvis-pelvis and some very short skirts on the coaches are more overt issues for sensitive audiences.
If you’ve always wanted to see the visual delight of Starlight Express in person, opportunities today are few and far between, outside of Bochum Germany. If you’ve never heard of the show, but you’d like to experience a psychedelic dreamland where scads of bedazzled teens sing and dance on wheels, go see Starlight Express. The show runs this week, March 11-12th and the 14th-16th. Get your ticket online at https://tickets.vendini.com/ticket-software.html?t=tix&e=abd84ef9cfd74f7bfd764e1206774723&linkNum=1&campaignID=308821&patronID=877720516&memberID=3425916673b958f3c464c940ba21477b&vqitq=78dcca68-822a-41b8-8837-4684e07b2f38&vqitp=50c9b099-9d9b-44b1-a90e-879fa6938637&vqitts=1548280534&vqitc=vendini&vqite=itl&vqitrt=Safetynet&vqith=ce996e80e75cc4d30f41e89f66351140 Tickets can also be purchased at the show’s box office just outside the auditorium.