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Strange and unique, especially for its time (it was first performed in 1984), 'Starlight Express' is still different in today's theatre landscape. But many of this musical's elements seem outdated.

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Starlight Express’

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic Starlight Express, one of the West End’s longest running musicals, will be playing at the Marina Bay Sands Grand Theatre from November 13-24 2013.

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Starlight Express is a musical telling the tale of a series of trains and carriages along with all their parts, who are personified and played by performers. The story starts with all the engines, coaches/carriages, and freight trucks getting ready for a race, but not without the male-gender engines falling in love with a couple of the female carriages such as the dining carriage, Dinah, and the observation coach, Pearl.

Initially, the race comes down to the new electric engine, Electra, the diesel locomotive, Greaseball, and an old steam engine, Poppa. However, Poppa, old and spent and unable to compete in the final race, seeks another younger steamer, Rusty, to take his place. Rusty however, who has his heart set on Pearl, has no confidence of winning the race.

Strange and unique, especially for its time (it was first performed in 1984), Starlight Express is still different in today’s theatre landscape, because of the its humanization of trains and its parts. However, many of this musical’s elements seem outdated, namely the storyline/theme, the music and lyrics. The storyline and theme are predictable and hence lack excitement, whilst the songs are not catchy melody-wise, and – perhaps it was the sound system at fault or interference from the accompanying loud rock music – most of the lyrics could not be deciphered clearly at all. The singing also sounded wobbly in parts.

It was also unfortunate that despite this being one of the rare musicals on skates, and despite there being a couple of ramps on stage, the performers don’t really do any thrilling stunts or flips and flops usually associated with the skating skill.

One good part of this production is the easy-listening blues numbers sung effortlessly by the engine Poppa in a smooth baritone voice about the blues of being an outdated steam engine.

Also, the finale number is surprisingly entertaining, with the entire ensemble singing and dancing snippets of the core songs from the musical.

With a 30-year-old musical like Starlight Express (as with a 60-year-old play like Mousetrap which played here last month) there is always a worry that shows which were relevant and exciting in their heyday remain in their original mode today, with little or no change, which often means that whilst people still go to watch out of nostalgia and interest, the productions aren’t really as entertaining as they should be in this era.

Then again, maybe that’s the appeal – to watch something old and sentimental, that has somehow stood the test of time, and for that in itself to be the reward.

About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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  1. Belle Alice Lowndes

    Interesting points about the fundamentally dated elements of this production – this is something the creative team have been desperately trying to do away with. This touring production has been changed almost beyond recognition from the 1984 original version – many new songs, cuts to the plot and characters, choreography “sexed up”, the show is simpler, brighter, and easier to watch than the original. But in these cuts, all the subtlety has been lost, characters have lost their story arcs, and a lot of the charm is gone. They’ve sacrificed the play for the sake of the spectacle, then the spectacle is sacrificed for the limits of a touring production.
    In my opinion, the production should be played to nostalgia, a lovesong to the 80s, and focus on the storyline, daft and lovable that it is! The original production wowed with the huge set, the skating tricks, the unique experience. A tour can’t take the set, and the spectacle, but it can take the unique story and beautiful music

  2. I love musicals and love skating! I went on Saturday night and was unfortunately disappointed. I did not pay a lot of money to sit and watch the ‘races’ in a 3D film, I paid to watch a stage production. The performers were good skaters although there weren’t many tricks and the acting was really over the top and quite irritating. The girls were constantly doing ‘sexy’ hip-wiggling dancing but it was boring and repetitive. It looked like they were auditioning for a well known awful TV ‘talent’ show. The patronising race announcer was REALLY annoying, sounded like she was from Disneyland. The story was really repetitive. The set was too small – a lot of stage was wasted. The ‘live’ orchestra?? Didn’t see them at all, they may or may not have been hiding in a back room, they were only seen on a screen waving at the end, they didn’t even appear on stage for a round of applause, probably because they were actually at the pub. Apparently the old production had skaters zooming around the audience, that I would have liked to have seen. To be fair, the costumes were fantastic and Pops had a fantastic voice.