Starlight Express | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Starlight Express 

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Starlight Express, Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre. This revamped 1984 musical about toy trains that come to life for a championship race wallows in ethnic and sexual stereotypes. The contenders, played by singer-dancers on roller skates, are a strutting Italian-American diesel engine named Greaseball; an electric androgyne, Electra, who sings "AC, DC--OK with me"; and a scrappy little steam engine named Rusty. While the body-armored males vie for first place, their flirtatious, skimpily costumed female coach cars dither over which of the engines they should, um, couple with. Guided by his heavenly "starlight express," Rusty rolls to victory, prompting a call for Greaseball to be converted to steam. "Can I be converted too?" asks the effeminate Electra--a double entendre that chillingly evokes religious attempts to "convert" homosexuals.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe, and David Yazbek's score borrows from rock, funk, blues, gospel, country (the best song is a Tammy Wynette send-up, "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D."), and hip-hop (an embarrassing attempt to update the show employs rapping black and Latino freight cars). But Starlight Express is mainly a vehicle for John Napier's design and the performers' athletic and vocal skills as they sail and somersault through Arlene Phillips's kinetic staging, based on director Trevor Nunn's original London and Broadway productions. Unfortunately, Nunn's vivid use of ramps over and around the audience has been replaced by a cheesy gimmick: tepid 3-D film segments that require viewers to don cardboard glasses.

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