Artisan Center Theater
Director – Gina Gwozdz and DeeAnn Blair
Musical Director—Richard Gwozdz
Skate Choreographer—Gina Gwozdz
Scenic Designer –Wendy Searcy-Woode
Lighting Designer/Special Effects Designer—Wes Taylor
Sound Designer – Natalie Burkhart and Richard Gwozdz
Costume Designer – Ryan Matthieu Smith
CAST (at reviewed performance)
Hip Hopper 1/Engine 3 (Turnov)—Travis King
Hip Hopper 2/Engine 1 (Nintendo)—Josh Wallace
Hip Hopper 3/Engine 4 (Pow/Trax 2)—Shelby King
Flat Top—Duncan Parkes
Volta/Engine 2 (Ruthrgold)—Elizabeth Holley
Starlight Express (Voice)—Bill Brooks
Reviewed Performance 8/13/2016
Reviewed by Genevieve Croft , Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
One of the longest running musicals in London’s West End history with over 7,000 performances, and one of the most popular musicals in Germany (performed continuously since 1988), Starlight Express had a less than stellar run on Broadway (only 761 performances). Starlight Express was first produced in London in 1984, at the height of rock ‘n’ roll and roller skates (think Xanadu and Skatetown U.S.A.). As Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals go, it never quite achieved the popularity of Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, or Cats.
Incorporating rock, country, and the blues, Starlight has elements of other Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, but never quite caught on in the United States. This aside, like many “cult musical” followings, Starlight Express seems to have die-hard fans, who jumped at this opportunity to see Artisan Center Theater’s production this season.
With an energetic 1980’s pop rock score by contemporary musical theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, Starlight Express tells the tale of a little boy’s love of his toy trains and how they magically come to life to race each other to see who is the fastest engine in the world. During the 1970’s, Lloyd Webber planned a musical adaptation of Rev. W. Awdry’s Railway Series (featuring Thomas the Tank Engine). However, Awdry refused to grant permission to use his characters in a musical production. Shortly after, Lloyd Webber re-conceived the idea using the idea of trains to tell the story of “Cinderella,” Throw in an entire cast on roller skates against a backdrop of flashy disco style club lights, and glittery, flashy costumes. Intrigued yet? Read on.
Directors Gina Gwozdz and DeeAnn Blair brought together an ensemble cast who were synced and worked well together. The cast was a predominantly youth cast, who handled the difficult material impressively. Not only was the musical score one of great complexity, the choreography (created by Gina Gwozdz) was also dramatic. The entire show was done completely on roller skates. Throughout the course of the production, I was in absolute awe of how well the cast executed some of the spectacle of the skate choreography with ease. The cast collaborated with a design crew that intricately knit together scenery and costumes, which enhanced the story being told by this eccentric ensemble of characters. There were a few stumbles (pacing and energy seemed to drag early in the first act) on this cast’s opening night, but considering the complexity the production, this could easily be excused. As the production progresses at “full-steam ahead,” I fully expect the energy to remain consistent throughout the course of the production.
There were some apparent audio issues that plagued the cast, it was hard to hear the cast throughout the production, and there was some microphone interference that would intermittently make it difficult to hear the actors, as well. However, the cast and crew were able to overcome these issues as the production hit stride, and the cast handled these issues with professionalism and grace.
Sets were designed by Wendy Searcy-Woode. There were many surprises that came along with the set and overall design. Upon entering the small, theatre-in-the-round space, audiences saw a very small suggestion of a train station. A black box theatre is very much a blank canvas and can take the shape and form of anything that is suggested by scenic designers. The space at Artisan Center Theater’s Main Stage is no different, the sets were very imaginative, but conveyed with such simplicity. Because the space at Artisan Center Theater is small, the audience was able to get up close and personal with the cast, and became an intimate part of the production. Sets consisted of a few platforms and ramps used for skating, it was simple, but, provided exactly what was needed in a production of this nature. The focus was on the characters, and the skate choreography. The set made these two elements shine, and did not take away from the other creative elements that helped to tell the story. It was a necessity, and also the appropriate touch to compliment complicated costumes, and other complex elements of the production.
Costumes were designed by Ryan Matthieu Smith. Smith designed costumes that also worked well with the scenic design. The costumes were very appropriate to the story, and were also very futuristic. I was impressed with the vibrant colors, and use of glitter in many of the costumes. Each ensemble member had their own unique touch to their costume, which really helped to tell the story. Costumes personified each “train” character, and were a fun, and imaginative expectation of each character’s role in the story.
Dawson Graham was incredible in the role of Greaseball. Mr. Graham was certainly one villain in the story that audiences can actually like. Through facial expressions, a wonderful sense of humor, and a powerful voice, Graham convincingly portrayed the “alpha-male” macho Diesel engine and reigning train champion. Mr. Graham brought great excitement and energy to the stage- while incorporating the appropriate touch of cheeky humor to his performance. One of his best numbers was “Pumping Iron,” –one of my favorite musical numbers in the production.
Another standout performance was Mary Ridenour, in the role of Pearl, the leading lady who is a “first-class girl.” Everything about Ridenour’s performance is first class, from her hilariously ditzy portrayal of the indecisive love struck character, to the way her impressive soprano voice blends beautifully fills the space of the theatre. Ridenour’s skills on skates were also impressive-her moves almost make you forget that skating as easy as she makes it seem.
The patriarch of the story is Poppa, played by Sheridan Monroe. Monroe is intensely charismatic on stage with his bluesy and smooth vocals in “Poppa’s Blues.” Monroe really brought down the house with the final number of the production, “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” leading the entire cast in powerfully sung number. Mr. Monroe did a wonderful job of keeping the audience excited in the second half of the production. The biggest treat (for me) was the performance of the “Mega Mix” at the end of production, highlighting the musical numbers again in a large, and enthusiastic medley as the show came to a close. It really pumped up the energy of the audience, and allowed them to sing as they exited the theatre. I truly believe that a musical has been successful, and the company has been triumphant in their role as entertainers if the audience leaves a musical singing songs from the score.
“Starlight Express” is a fun experience at the theatre. If you are a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and have never seen this production before, it is one that you need to see. Not only does it bring the excitement and energy of a concept rock-opera style musical to local theatregoers, but also, it may be the only opportunity for you to see such an obscure and otherwise “dated” musical before it is re-shelved into the archive of musical theatre. Overall, the experience was an enjoyable one, it was easy to forgive its minor flaws. You have a short time to see “Starlight Express’ at Artisan Center Theater, before it departs.
Artisan Center Theater
Plays through September 3rd.
444 E Pipeline Rd, Hurst, TX 76053
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays (7:30pm)
Seniors (60+) / Students $20
Children (12 & under) $9
Fridays (7:30pm), Saturdays (3:00pm / 7:30pm)
Seniors (60+) / Students $20
Children (12 & under) $11
For more information, and to purchase tickets, call: 817) 284-1200, or visit: http://www.artisanct.com