IVINS — In bedrooms across America, young boys ignore their mothers’ admonitions to put away their toys and go to bed. On stage at Tuacahn Amphitheatre, Mom (Jennifer Evans) interrupts her young son Control (Payton Kemp) as he sets his toy train up for a major race. Starlight Express gives a voice to this young boy’s imagination as he sneaks out of bed to give directions to each race contestant. Nintendo (Eric Badique), Turnov (Michael McGurk), Ruhrgold (James Blashaw), and Greaseball (Todd Dubail) represent the diesel trains, with Greaseball as the clear favorite to win the race. But as Electra (Dustin Dubreuil) arrives with his posse to advocate the power of the new electric engine, loyalties begin to shift. Rusty (Steven M. Goldsmith), an old steam engine, must decide if it is even worth racing to defend steam engine pride. As the underdog, Rusty must overcome a variety of challenges ranging from insecurity to lost love to a rigged race in order to secure a spot in the championship. And when things get particularly bad, he must turn to a higher power, The Starlight Express (C. Mingo Long), to help find his own personal strength.
It may sound like an ordinary underdog tale, but this production was anything but ordinary. As the U.S. regional premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Starlight Express, this production added many “firsts” to the show’s legacy. This Tuacahn production was the first to feature a live Control and Mom; previous national and international productions featured prerecorded voices. Although traditionally performed by actors all on roller skates, director and choreographer Louanne Madorma-Williams made an unprecedented decision to use Heelys for portions of the show. And while actors in other companies have had up to a year to rehearse on skates before even attempting choreography, Tuacahn’s cast rehearsed for only 22 days.
Despite the short rehearsal time, the skating in this musical was exceptional. The set, designed by Doug Ellis, provided a track that extended out past the first section of audience seating and wrapped around to a ramp leading back to center stage. On stage was a skating bowl and two quarter pipes, a playground for some impressive tricks. Members of Greaseball’s Gang (James Blashaw, Eric Badique, Anni Frehner, Michael McGurk, Joel Rene’, and Kayla Smith) and the three Hoppers (Eymard Cabling, Clinton Sherwood, Ben Tucker) handled most of the in-air and quarter pipe tricks, while the main trains and cars did the bulk of the race skating. Of these, Dubail (Greaseball), appeared most comfortable on his skates. For Dubail, the addition of eight wheels seemed to strengthen rather than inhibit his performance.
Multiple effects combined to make the racetrack setting feel authentic. First, the sound of the train whistle echoing in the red rock actually created a reverberation felt physically in the seats. Combined with the natural rock and dirt landscape seen through a railroad bridge, I could easily have expected a real train to run behind the set. In addition, the pyrotechnic effects used to create sparks during the races added both audio and visual layers to help the actors on skates seem like the real deal. But it was the 3D special effects, produced by Geoff Puckett, which had the greatest effect on the race atmosphere. As the Control directed spectators to put on their safety glasses, 3D video was projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. The trains took their places on the projected tracks and raced in front of the three dimensional animated backdrop. The result was complete sensory immersion, and suddenly the races seemed real.
It would be easy to let this show’s technical merits dominate the praise, but equally amazing was the execution of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music (with lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, Don Black, David Yazbek, and Nick Coler). Long was the most consistently impressive vocalist, introducing his strong soulful voice with “Poppa’s Blues,” delivering a depth of emotion in “Starlight Sequence” as The Starlight Express, and leading the cast in “Light at the End of the Tunnel” as Poppa. Though I had enjoyed Goldsmith early on as Rusty, he won me over completely with his beautifully sustained plea to The Starlight Express in “Starlight Sequence.” Still, the best vocal moments of the evening belonged to Kemp in “Starlight Express.” Although he sang only a handful of phrases, he sang with a clear, powerful tone and an expertly controlled vibrato that would have been impressive on any actor. It was ability, not his young age, which left the stronger impression.
Matching the exuberance of the rock music was the energy of the choreography. Beginning early with “Rolling Stock,” the skaters showed their ability not only to glide effortlessly across the stage but to execute synchronized choreography as well. Choreography by Madorma-Williams consistently supported the character development of the various trains, especially in the case of crowd-favorite Greaseball. Choreographed to highlight his “backview” as he warned his opponents it was all they’d see, Dubail elicited a favorable audible response from several female members of the audience. However, some of the choreography set on Heelys seemed to lack the energy and precision of the full-skating choreography. The engine’s carriages including Pearl (Delaney Westfall), Dinah (Gail Bennet), Buffy (Kate Scott), and Duvay (Erica Bryce) displayed varying levels of energy and skill in their numbers together including “A Lotta Locomotion.” Additionally, the hip hop numbers danced by the Hoppers lacked the hard-hitting commitment necessary for the dance style. Electra’s crew, including Purse (Troy McGee), Wrench (Talese Hunt), Joule (Veronica Yeager), and Volta (Jayme Wappel), however, executed some of the strongest dancing of the evening.
Attention to detail in hair and makeup design (Marlo Rawlings) and costume designers (Rawlings and Clark Schaffer) rounded out the production. Each of the train engines, carriages, and freight cars wore not only a costume unique to his or her character, but also wore face paint, accessories, and hair to match, such as the silver strands in Pearl’s hair shimmered as she skated around the stage, or blue LED lights on Electra’s headdress and skates advertised his electric advantage. And Dustin’s (Derek Brazeu) costume featured not only a headpiece full of dirt but a padded costume designed to make him look more difficult to pull. And Poppa’s chimney actually wheezed a bit of smoke throughout the show.
Mixed in among the highs were a few less-than-stellar moments. While Bennett’s southern accent came through during dialogue, it was often replaced by more classical vowel sounds when she sang. This was especially true of her big solo, “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D.” While she delivered some great country-western moments, the vocal inconsistency distracted from an otherwise great character. While Dubreuil demonstrated several impressive tricks on his skates, he seemed the least comfortable of the engines during race time. Unfortunately, as the electric engine of the future, his skating was unconvincing. Though beautiful, the harmony during “Make Up My Heart” was confusing, since Westfall was alone on the stage singing Pearl’s solo anthem. And the LED lights used in several costumes worked only some of the time. The end result was a potentially interesting detail that became a liability throughout the production.
But as the entire ensemble united at the end to support Rusty’s triumph, with Greaseball and Electra begging to be converted to steam, it was impossible to think of the minor imperfections. The cast sang and danced/skated “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” creating a production number to top all production numbers. Between pyrotechnics, fast-paced skating, aerial tricks, and amazing ensemble singing, it was disappointing to see the cast take their final bows. Then, as the audience stood delivering applause, the entire cast reappeared for an encore highlighting several of the evening’s numbers. Although many casts are physically spent by the final bows, this cast had plenty of energy left for one more number. It was particularly enjoyable to get to see Kemp come down from his toy trains and skate on Heelys along with the rest of the cast. At the conclusion of the song as the sky lit up with fireworks, it was time to leave Starlight Express behind.
Tuacahn’s Starlight Express offers an evening of non-stop rock music, pyrotechnics, 3D projection, excellent singing, and exciting skating combined to bring to life a classic tale of the underdog beating all the odds. It is equal parts excitement and heart, which means there is something in it for everybody. As the U.S. regional premier, this production brings something brand new to Southern Utah, and its groundbreaking accomplishments set it apart from any production worldwide. If you only see one Tuacahn show this summer, make it Starlight Express.