I had the pleasure of attending the Joburg Theatre’s media opening night for one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best-loved and longest running stage musicals – Starlight Express.
Directed by the pantomime queen, Janice Honeyman, the production offers local talent on roller-skates. Yes, that’s right, singing and dancing while revolving around the stage on old school roller-skates. If nothing else, each performer needs to be given a big applause for attempting to do the mobile choreography. Admittedly, most of the cast looked comfortable and at ease on the skates, but there was a fall from the leading lady and a few near misses.
Starlight Express first opened at the Apollo Victoria Theater in London in March 1984, and in April 1991, it became the second longest running musical in London theatre history at that time. The record-breaking run in London eventually closed with its 7,461st performance on 12th January 2002, almost eighteen years after its opening. Of course it has done the rounds throughout the United Kingdom and United States of America, but the musical is most loved by the Germans, where it has recently celebrated its 25th year. So much is their über love for the show, that the production permanently plays in Bochum, Germany, at a specially built venue – the Starlighthalle.
However, this is the first time Starlight Express has been seen in South Africa; what’s more, it is the first non-replica production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega musical.
The synopsis of the story is that it is a rock musical with a lot of disco influence, which follows a child’s dream in which his toy train set comes to life. Essentially it is a Cinderella story in that the main character, a steam engine named Rusty, is the underdog in a race against his stepsisters, a diesel engine named Greaseball and an electric engine named Electra. Within the fairytale context, the Starlight Express is the fairy godmother.
Confused? Admittedly, so was I considering that the performance itself was like one big acid trip. However, it all comes together and if you can indulge the skating and “singing trains” and make it past the opening scene, you might just enjoy the entire production.
The local talent – as always when it comes to South African theatre – was of a high standard, but undoubtedly, the show is stolen by the roller-choreography which was phenomenal.
Different to the global showings of Starlight Express, The Joburg Theatre show offers special seating on stage that gives stage seated audience members a 360° view of the performance. It is a novel idea, but, in my opinion, does not work as well in practice. Theatres are designed with acoustics and vantage points in mind. Therefore, in a good theatre, it doesn’t matter where you sit, the sound is supposed to be the same and the view is only influenced by how far from the stage, or at which angle you sit. Sitting on scaffolding on the stage obstructs your view a bit, as the gradient at which you are sitting is, unfortunately, not the same as the normal seating. It is also incredibly loud every time someone gets up and walks on the scaffolding. Stage seating, in this instance, appears to be more of a bragging right rather than enhancing the overall experience.
Overall, it was a good night out and it was quite a bit of fun to watch something so out of the ordinary.
The show runs on the stage of the Mandela at Joburg Theatre until Sunday, 1st September 2013. You can visit www.joburgtheatre.com for further ticket information.