As this was my first time seeing the new cast, I made notes. During the show, from the back of the balcony - I was writing in pitch darkness, the notes are quite entertaining, but almost illegible!
First off, initial impressions of the set. I loved the last set - it was so cute! Really resourceful the way it moved, and it worked really well, there was only one thing I hated, the revolving stage. "look at the girl's arses from every angle!" Totally unnecessary, and it detracted from the skating - using the revolve to move actors who have 4 revolves on each foot is somewhat redundant! But for this set, what was the single recognisable feature from the previous tour? The revolve. Fortunately, as the show progressed it became clear that the revolve mechanism is not with us, but just the floor painting from the revolve (I didn't notice any recessed lighting?). The set basically consists of this circular floor, which I estimate at being marginally larger than the centre-deck in Bochum - the flat space before it goes up into any ramps. That's it for skating space.
From the centre stage, middle of the circle, about half-way back is a row of columns, 6 cutting across the circle, and three more on each side. Between these columns are arches, the centre back and on either side is one wider arch, and between the others narrower arches. The rest of the circle can be seen through the arches, then curtained behind that. The front 1/4 thrusts out into the auditorium - but this space is used very rarely. The less confident skaters afraid of the edge? Rehearsed in a smaller area? The back wall of arches splits in the middle to allow the 3D projector to hit the screen, which is lowered downstage. Seems to be a smaller screen now? And they no longer have the two smaller screens displaying the toy train video at the beginning, or the race stats, or any of the other incidental graphics.
The Pre-show announcement made me laugh... "This is an entirely LIVE performance!".... that is, apart from all the recorded material. Control's introduction hasn't changed, except that since we'd not been watching a 2 minute looped video of toy trains coupling for the past half hour, the train noises on the recorded Control were the first we'd heard them.
Entry of the National Engines
As the show truly got started, Ruhrgold swept in, followed by a flag bearer proudly waving the German flag. One lap of the set and they cleared the stage for Turnov... having nowhere to go meant their initial appearances were blink-and-miss-them. But having the flag bearers made the opening moments have a far stronger impact, two skaters, ooooh! Also the flags strengthen the national identity of the engines, a little. In these opening moments, Turnov was an absolute star, bristling with contained energy. Without wanting to insult, I do wonder if this was James Marin - this was an extremely confident skater who was also putting a whole lot of character into the role. I do wonder if it was Andrew Millar or Jamie Capewell - from the back of the circle it was hard to judge his height.
There's some slight choreography changes that only an obsessive would notice - basically on the line "This is my back view and it's all you'll see", normally Greaseball poses with his back to the audience - not so now. There's just nowhere for them to go in the dance break, and the little wheel-on ramps aren't enough to get up to any real tricks. There's just not enough room for one group to perform one move while another set up for the next, as is usual. Still, the performances were very good, strong, crisp in the dancing and skating, all very powerful!
As the coaches came on I was instantly alert for costume changes - I can't help it, it's what I do, even from the back of the circle! Ashley's skirt now has a back panel that's ruched up, looks somewhat like a bustle pad. I'm fairly sure it's a new skirt altogether, but might well be the old understudy bodice. Dinah's bodice has finally been sorted out - still the grossly inappropriate design, but you can no longer see three layers of costume on her bust, under her napkins, now there is a simple white neckline. Much tidier at least! Pearl is also a new costume, I think, she's certainly got a lot of shinyness, crystals catching in the lights making her sparkle! Unfortunately the design fails to flatter her figure at all, making her look very top-heavy in her arms and shoulders, and giving no illusion of bust, waist or hips.
Whole Lotta Locomotion
While there were no cast announcements, I am fairly sure that Ashley was Rebecca Lisewski - her skating had the confidence that only a year of practice racing around the Bochum set can give you. Whole Lotta Locomotion has been re-choreographed, there's still a lot of the "look at my boobs! look at my bum!" moves, but there's also a lot of nice canon moves, and good use of the stage, and a couple of moves stoled from the original Lotta Locomotion, including the figure-8 move which gives the impression of being moments away from a coach pile-up! Which of course never happens.
He'll Whistle At Me
While Miria Parvin is a fine actress, as well as a lovely dancer and beautiful singer (in an unflattering costume), her talents actually detract from "He'll Whistle At Me". Through acting and emoting the song, what is otherwise a dull little moment becomes a truly silly song. The fault is not with Miria, but in the material itself and its placing within the show, but singing "oooooh, he'll whistle at me..." just came across as silly. Freight was strong, the coaches all having a fine time in the background, Dinah baking a cake, while Ashley was flirting with the Hoppers. Hopper 1, Robert Nurse, was stunningly impressive - when I read his resume, I understood why, since he is of the same London vintage as Mykal Rand, joining the show in 1989 as a Rocky! Caboose (Stuart Armfield) has a particularly lovely voice. I wish we could hear him sing "There's Me"!
The Hoppers have given me cause for thought. In the last leg of the tour, the hoppers were played by three white boys, caricaturing the Eminem-wannabes, white boys who try so hard to adopt black street-culture and look absolutely rediculous. The Hoppers were a perfect pastiche of this trend. However now Hoppers 1 and 2 are genuinely Hip Hop, being tall, fit black dancers. That I would prefer them to be Rockies goes without saying. But are these guys what the Hip Hoppers were intended to be - having that authentic Hip Hop vibe? Or have they shot themselves in the foot by casting these boys, who are in no way a caricature of the stereotype? Starlight Express does thrive on Stereotypes, Greaseball is the greaser, the Danny Zucko, Dinah is the Dolly Parton, Flat-top is the punk. The Rockies are the stereotype of the boxer, their moves and style taken from New York skate breakdancers in Central Park. The Nationals caricature their respective nationality. They all fall between stereotype, the straight characteristics, and caricature, good-naturedly laughing at the mannerisms of a group. But where do the Hip Hoppers fall? And can't they just fall away and give us Rockies back?
The intro to AC/DC made me happy - one of those little bits of detail that add so much to the storytelling has been put back. As Control asks for any more entries, the power goes haywire, leading to a powercut, where all the characters are left helpless, drained and flopped over centre-stage for a second until Electra approaches. Unfortunately this powercut seemed to also affect the dry-ice machines, as their effect was not nearly strong enough to mask the curtain being pulled back to allow the components through. With far less technology travelling this time, Electra's entrance was less impressive than even the emergency backup plan in London, he just skates on. However, Mykal Rand made up for this with his amazing skating, and his new wig! So tall! Still carefully styled into a narrow blade at the top tho, unlike the more conventional splayed ends that resemble sparks, or frayed wire. This wig puts me in mind of the Mexican production more than anything else, it's big, but so clean and neat with carefully divided colours. The only thing that annoyed me during AC/DC was that Electra zapped and controlled Rusty. There's a whole little sub-plot that the reason Steam beats Electricity is that it is not dependant on Control for power... in the same way the power cut before AC/DC leaves everyone helpless.
Was this Greaseball approaching, or the Rum Tum Tugger? The coaches were squealing like kittens! Tom Kanavan's Greaseball is so impressively Greaseball. Despite the tiny stage, he managed to skate over the seven girls, using the ramp he just got enough impetus. I had been hoping that the dance break would be in the style of the london choreography, which prioritised the coaches (with an existing relationship with Greaseball) over the components (attracted to this very masculine shiny thing). As it is the dance break seemed remarkably static, and everything was well up from centrestage, the downstage area being conspicuously un-used. While this was good for me (as fidgetty small child sitting in front often blocked my view of the from section) it seemed odd. Perhaps it was having this unused space and everyone crammed in the back that made it seem so static. The Hoppers were having a fantastic time throughout Pumping Iron, they have a whole choreographed sequence very reminiscent of backing vocals girls!
The Coda frieght was the silliest moment of the entire show! These two small ramps, about 5' high, maybe 18" deep platform at the top, maybe 4' wide, wheeled around by the cast or by some very visible crew. For Coda Freight mounted with railings at the top. Greaseball mounted one, Electra mounted the other, and the components pushed Elok around, and freight pushed GB around, as if they were riding shopping trolleys! It was absolutely ABSURD! The two most powerful engines, reduced to being shunted around the stage by the others. What makes these characters so powerful is their speed and strength, which was totally removed by this staging! Also, it bore a very strong resemblance to the VERY bad 2002 (?) london production of "Romeo and Juliet - the Musical" (which incidentally featured Lez Dwight and Martin Matthias) where the heads of the warring families were shunted around in much the same manner, only to greater scale and effect. The other thing this staging reminded me of was the very original concept for Starlight Express, before they hit on roller skates, of putting the cast in dodgem/bumper car affairs and having them driving around. Any way you look at it, it was rediculous, inappropriate for the characters, and very, very undignified! It made me laugh!
I still don't get why, with so much cut from this production, Pearl has an line added to her script. In the intro to Crazy, Rusty asks "What's the matter Pearl?" in a rhetorical manner, he's only asking so he can say "Don't you want to race with the fastest engine in the world?" Pearl answering him with "I dunno Rusty," spoils the pace and makes no sense and slows things down just when we're picking up into a nice upbeat song. WHY bother? And either I'm going slightly mad, or half the second chorus has been cut, further altering the pacing of the song. Yes the pacing's wrong, but because of the added dialogue! More props to Miria, who as so many Pearls do, couldn't face the high note in "til someone better comes along" - but Miria added a much more interesting harmony line to take a lower option, rather than just cracking on a very high note while skating round. The Crazy choreography has been changed - That GODAWFUL miming along has been replaced by some more nice dance moves, making good use of the limited space. In "Make Up My Heart" Miria used the simplest version of the choreography, but used it very well, and a beautiful vocal performance.
The mobile ramps really came into their own here, as mobile set pieces. They looked great! Poppa sat on a buffer, and the other ramp had a coal heap and a brazier on it. These were both backed with corrugated iron obscuring the tops of the backs of the ramps. Having somewhere for Poppa to sit, and the clear scene change, have a huge impact, make the scene feel much more cosy and intimate and very much unlike the big set numbers... Interesting characterisation of Flat-top that for once he's not cowed being told "Oil is the work of the DIESEL himself!" Absolutely fantastic Poppa, gorgeous voice, very commanding presence, another StEx star!
I finally answered the bugging familiarity of the 3D races. They have been really strongly reminding me of something since I first saw them - and it's Red Dwarf! The lighting quality, the use of the set, the way the action happens, everything about them reminds me of Red Dwarf. Which is a good thing, as Red Dwarf starred Danny John-Jules as The Cat, and it's possibly my favourite Sci-fi comedy. But part of the Red Dwarf comedy is from how cheap and "found" their special effects were...
This number, again, all seemed very high upstage. Oliver Thornton performed this number very nicely, but overall somehow didn't make a strong impression as Rusty.
The Hip Hoppers managed to pull off this number better than I've seen it before, but it's still dire musically. However it has been re-choreographed and loos infinitely better! There's much less of the random appearing and disappearing onstage, but the ramps aren't sufficient, and Matt King's stunts are absolutely lost in the melee. I think that perhaps better lighting to single him out would bring Trax to the forefront a little more, but as it is the audience hardly sees him at all. Somehow the most effective use of the ramps was when they were turned away from the audience and the three hoppers sat on them while rapping, and everyone else dancing around. Perhaps it was because this was a rare use of multi-level staging within the show, kept simple and so very effective. As ever, Mykal Rand stole the show with random Electra moments, such as yelling "Your Momma" to Greaseball!
Uncoupled was beautifully performed by Lucy-Jane Adcock. Without the small screens and the bouncy Kare-Oke graphics, the audience's attention was on Dinah, and listening to her sing. She played the role as a more rounded character, less playing for laughs than the last cast. Made it even more frustrating to not have "There's Me"! And skipping Girl's Rolling Stock is always such a jolt, it's such an upbeat, impressive song, contrasts so well with Uncoupled. And Then we miss another song, "Wide Smile High Style" is probably the biggest hole in the whole show. It sets up so nicely, Caboose plotting with Greaseball, but the song just doesn't happen, it's so incredibly frustrating.
The Uphill Final is at last a little clearer. As there are no small screens, the absolutely random Animé video is gone. Instead we see Greaseball and Caboose going for Rusty much more clearly. Control tells the audience to put on Safety Goggles, and the 3D screen lowers and does show the 3D video of the start of a race, but is cancelled before they get to "8" in the countdown. However the scene following is exactly taken from London, except no Marshalls onstage, no "they" for Rusty to refer to. "You told the Marshalls I raced into You!"? He didn't, there were no marshalls, and there was no racing. Also the lighting let down Caboose, at this point standing cackling for an uncomfortably long time while the gang beat up Rusty, but Caboose was lost in the shadows and far removed from the action. Flat-top's "Give it up, Rusty, you'll never beat them" is just too long a phrase for the little welsh valleys punk truck to deliver... "You alright Rusty?" is so much stronger by being so much shorter.
Right Place, Right Time
How I long for Rockies. The Hopper version of this song is so simplified. It's static, repetitive, they spend so much time standing waiting for the next beat to do the next move. It's simply a pale shadow of what this number should be. And it's not like these guys couldn't do the real thing! The music has been cut down as well. Well, it is going to drag when there's not much going on!
The most startling aspect of the Starlight Sequence is that Oliver yells "Starlight Express!" at the beginning, rather than holding a sung note as Rustys from London usually do. If you're not expecting the shout it can make you jump! Beautiful voices from both Poppa and Rusty, the effects work nearly as well as the last tour, only difference might be que to the angle we were at, but the Star field seemed flatter and it didn't come as far downstage as before, so not quite such an amazing effect. Still pretty gorgeous tho!
Brilliant use of lighting for the intro to the last race - a simple pattern as of a Zebra crossing was projected onto the stage to form a runway. These same patterns were used in London during "Freight", but never used with purpose as here. The effect was to create three intercrossing paths for the three finalists. At the same time as this gloriously effective lighting, the music was jarring, as two vocal lines are simply not sung. While in London these were Bobo's "le jour de gloire est arrivé" and Buffy's "Gonna be hot, hotter than Hot", there's an older version where it's six characters not eight, and Caboose sings "Just for me, I'm in this just for me". Yet in the tour there's nothing. I didn't pick out what, if anything, Caboose was singing, but why does he not sing the melody line written for him? To someone who knows the music well, it jarred. I still love the fact that a tiny remnant of the original Rap lingers in the show there, "Rusty's gonna race, Rusty's gonna Race, Rusty's gonna race in the final!"
Any argument that changes couldn't be made to the tour due to continuity with the filmed races holds no water. At one moment Rusty's skating in blades, next quads. Then back to Blades, slowing himself down by grinding along a bannister. He finishes the race with Pearl, but then onstage he runs off looking for her - followed by the ensemble... who then re-appear after "One Rock'n'Roll Too Many", following Poppa, and no-one, bar Dustin, knows where Rusty's gone! If they all went off after Rusty, did they get lost? Did he go too fast for them? I wish they'd put in a little london influence and have Ashley and Buffy's "Hold on a minute - WHAT is THAT?" which leads to the ensemble remaining onstage during "One Rock'n'Roll Too Many" and adding to Greaseball, Electra and Caboose's humiliation.
Pearl's entrance in this song is conducted beautifully! As in london, she comes in, perching on the buffer. The token set piece gives such a clear sense of change of scene - now if only the stage crew who got her there could get themselves offstage a little more discreetly! The appearance of stage blacks is ruined by luminous/reflective white trainers onstage. But Miria, oblivious to the small distraction behind her, sang absolutely beautifully. "Only He" is a gorgeous song, even in a less than ideal arrangement. Miria and Oliver seem to work very well off each other onstage. If they'd just trim a few excess bars from this song, and put a couple back where they've been cut from others - Starlight Express does not need to be "The Rusty and Pearl Show". Greaseball, Dinah, Electra, Poppa and Caboose should all be equally significant.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
I still miss "Shut it, Control!" These trains are so obedient, there's no sense of rebellion from them, no sense of developing beyond a child's imagination and taking control of their own future in converting to Steam. Also these trains have no sense of the history of Steam Engines, with the first verse of LATEOTT cut - "It's the power of James watt, that Steaming Scot..." etc. That verse has come to the aid of every Starlight-savvy school child at some point, giving an exam answer or a point for speaking up in class. But it's been cut from the tour. I was pleased to see the Megamix tho, as it really does finish off the show so well, a final recap of every character. We waited to hear the band's play-out as well, great band, until the final bar- the final chord- we waited - but No! No squeak of slighty out of tune trumpet to finish! It's just not right, I tell you. The show needs to finish with that high squeaked note.
So, overall I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the show. The cast are magnificent, not a weak link, they are keeping the show alive despite everything. Also the direction and intelligent use of the extremely limited space have made this leg of the tour more enjoyable than the last. The set is a let-down, of course they need to scale down to fit in some of the venues they are booked into. But the lack of variable heights makes it, well, flat. But the biggest problem with the show would be the simplest to fix - it is too short. It's too cut down and there's too much missing. Trying to shorten the show to the attention span of a 5-year old is no good, it will never work, so why not leave the show with some integrity so the whole family can enjoy it? Yes it would go over the heads of the youngest in the audience, but so it does anyway with this production with the added disadvantage of "OMGboobsarsesexsexsexsex!!!!!" coaches who are not child-friendly or role-models. While it's still fun and very watchable, the show lacks balance, which is not good on roller-skates.