Morbid curiosity might rivet our gaze to accidents, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express is the sort of train wreck no one should ever be forced to look upon. Here's the setup: An unseen nine-year-old boy plays with trains until his unseen mother sends him to bed. There the boy dreams up a narrative in which trains come to life and race each other. These trains appear in the form of real-life performers dressed in spandex "train costumes." They move (and stumble a bit) about a roller-derby stage on roller skates -- all the while singing and dancing, of course.
If that isn't reason enough to run like hell from the Hobby Center (where the new national tour of Starlight Express has arrived, thanks to Theatre Under the Stars), well, here are a few more.
Despite the childishness of its plot, this show is not suitable for children. The unseen boy sounds sweet enough in the voice-over, but he's got one salacious imagination. He dreams up girl-trains who look like strippers from The Men's Club, complete with garter belts and balloon-sized breasts squeezing out of the tops of their bras. They grind their hips when they dance and long to hook up with the right engine. In current jargon, these girl-trains might be classified as aggressive hoochies. The boy-trains of this child's imagination wear codpieces and sparkly tights under their boxy train heads. And they do an awful lot of hanging on to each other's rear ends while singing oddly suggestive songs about pumping iron and switching between AC and DC power. When they aren't busy bumping and grinding, they're fighting dirty in the race, beating each other to a pulp and enjoying the fact that some trains are smashed to smithereens in the tunnel or go careening into a gorge to what must be certain train-death.
To make matters worse, the performers who must enact this ridiculous material don't shine with much starlight. Only Dennis LeGree, who plays Poppa, an old steam train who sings "Poppa's Blues," can make something out of these inane tunes. He's got one of those magical voices that could make even the phone book sound poetic -- and that's the only way the loud jangle of this pop-styled score can be transformed into music.
The set is a hodgepodge of scaffolding onto which a roller-skating short track has been built. It turns and moves as the conflict builds, but the actual racing scenes are enacted in short films on a screen that slides down from the rafters. After putting on "safety glasses" (paper 3D shades), the audience is treated to what looks like a Power Rangers battle done on the cheap.
On opening night, nobody on my row or the row ahead of me returned for the second act. The only surprise there is that so many others did.
The black-and-white celluloid world of 1940s Hollywood is alive and well in City of Angels, a sort of musical film noir running at the Masquerade Theatre. In this ambitious play by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, platinum blonds carry pistols in their pocketbooks, naughty teenagers know all the secrets of love, and the sexy detective falls for the dark-haired beauty from the wrong side of the tracks.
Woven into the flashy film tale is a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking magic. Life sucks for a schmo named Stine (Luther Chakurian), a screenwriting hack who must bang his much-beloved novel into the kind of pap his director-producer (Russell Freeman) will pay the big Hollywood bucks for. The film tells a high-drama tale of murder and sex, while Stine's story is all about the shame of selling out. With more than 40 characters who run from hotel room to film set, and from L.A. to New York, the show covers a lot of territory during its three-hour run time. But it holds together mostly because of the terrific music sung by the strong cast at Masquerade.
Kicking off the story is an easy, '40s-cool tune of scat-singing performed by the entire cast and backed up by an impressive jazz trio (Anita Butt, Mark Prause and Doug Herrington). But Coleman and Zippel have written a complex score filled with everything from Latin tunes ("All You Have to Do Is Wait") to pop-styled love crooning ("With Every Breath I Take") to swaggering Broadway brass ("You're Nothing Without Me").
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And director Phillip K. Duggins's cast tackles these songs with confidence. Especially good is Allison Sumrall in "You Can Always Count On Me," a swanky number about the plight of the other woman. Dressed in a silky little gown that slips off her shoulders, Sumrall throws back her blond hair and belts out the showstopper while oozing cat-eyed lust. When big-voiced Chakurian and Ilich Guardiola get together for "You're Nothing Without Me," the two stars of Masquerade go toe-to-toe with voices that feel perfectly matched. The fire of Chakurian is flamed by the breezy ease of Guardiola, and their duet is perhaps the best song of the night. On the other hand, when Chakurian solos in the ironic "Funny," he sounds too big, too darkly dramatic, for the musical's cool tone.
But there are few missteps here. The show could easily be cut by an hour, and would probably be better off for it. But this gutsy little company continues to be fearless in the material it produces. And it handles this complex music with dexterity and charm.
Starlight Express Through May 25 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. $25-$68.
City of Angels Through May 24 at the Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, 713-861-7045. $20-$25.