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Photograph by Joan Marcus

Do the Locomotion: Rusty and the Coaches get ready to roll down the rails in 'Starlight Express.'

Stormy Webber

'Starlight Express' is music-theater equivalent to AmTrak

By Rob Pratt

AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATER of San Jose has rolled out a theme for the current season, presenting a pair of shows from the 1980s involving trains. While the first of the two, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's On the 20th Century, proved to be a stylish revival of a classic vehicle, the current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express comes off as the musical theater equivalent of Amtrak. It's costly, inelegant and, ultimately, doesn't go anywhere that people want to go.

The touring production, which runs at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts through Feb. 29, includes a number of rewrites and staging tweaks to the blockbuster original. The story remains intact: a glitzy and loosely interpreted telling of Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could. But a touring show simply couldn't accommodate the original's mammoth set, which included tons and tons of girders and timbers for a raceway that encircled the audience. Train-race sequences have been transformed into 3D film clips that look like they've been lifted straight from some recent Xbox video game, and they make a nice complement to dozens of lighting effects that make Starlight Express a stunning visual spectacle. It's literally stunning, too, as bright and flickering lights periodically sweep through the audience and trigger waves of rapid pupil constriction.

Cool lighting effects might keep an audience of backstage geeks amused for a couple of hours, but everyone else needs a good story and good music to stave off the fidgets. This Starlight Express has precious little of either. Part of the problem may be the Center for the Performing Arts, which is never kind to amplified voice and music. With fleeting exceptions, the players could have lip-synced the entire show and delivered as much emotional impact. Only the powerful and limber voice of Dennis LeGree, who plays Poppa, an aged steam train, manages to connect with the audience beyond the first few rows of the orchestra section.

In Las Vegas, this Starlight Express might seem totally at home. A billion-dollar casino could afford to present the show with awe-inspiring, gargantuan sets and a sound system that would rumble listeners miles away. But amid the humble Center for the Performing Arts, no number of semitrucks loaded with laser lights and extravagant costumes lifted from a 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger futuristic epic can compensate for the show's complete lack of heart.

Starlight Express, an American Musical Theater production, plays Thursdays at 2 and 8pm (except Feb. 19), Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8pm, Sundays at 1 and 6:30pm (except Feb. 29) and Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8pm through Feb. 29 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $44.50-$75.50. (408.453.7108)

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From the February 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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