Review: ‘Starlight Express’ at West Potomac High School

You’d have to be “Crazy” not to go and find the ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ with the fastest show on earth: Starlight Express at the Beyond the Page Theatre Company of West Potomac High School!

With an energetic 80’s pop rock score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, and original choreography by Arlene Phillips, 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! The story follows a steam engine named Rusty who must compete against the diesel muscle power and surging new power of his rivals Greaseball and Electra to win both the race, and the heart of the beautiful first class coach Pearl. But what is the true draw of this lesser known Webber show? Why, the roller-skating of course! That’s right, every single one of the 31 student cast is on wheels for the entire show, making it a visual spectacle that must be seen by all.

The cast of 'Starlight Express.' Photo by Mike Edwards.
The cast of ‘Starlight Express.’ Photo by Mike Edwards.

From the first moment the lights come up, this production gets your heart pounding with excitement as skilled featured skater Matt Evans jumps down one of the large ramps on the stage and skates circles around Charlie Ruppe playing the Boy, waving the flag proclaiming the show’s title high and giving the audience a taste of the next two hours and fifteen minutes of wow-factor.

The show opens with the introduction of all the current engine champs of the world, including the American champion Greaseball, a muscled mysonginstic meathead who is certain he will be victorious in the day’s races. Greaseball is played by Jonathan Barger, whose silky bass and almost Elvis-like swagger delights the audience, and the lady trains of the tale. Barger has the audience giggling within minutes of his arrival with hilarious physical comedy.

We also meet the futuristic and flamboyant competitor Electra (John McFarlane). McFarlane electrifies the audience with a grandiose entrance and thrilling falsetto notes. Our underdog hero is Rusty the steam engine (David Jarzen). Jarzen truly shines as bright as starlight on the stage, his skates are like extensions of himself as he effortlessly glides in circles and spins, and his beautiful tenor soars in the title song that closes out the first act.

Paired perfectly with Jarzen is the lovely Emily Carbone who plays the leading lady carriage of Pearl who’s a “first class girl.” Everything about Carbone’s performance is first class, from her hilariously ditzy portrayal of the indecisive lovestruck character, to the way her sweet soprano blends beautifully with Jarzen during the culminating love duet “I Do.” Carbone’s skills on wheels are also impressive, with beautiful balletic turns and extensions that almost make you forget that skating isn’t as easy as she makes it seem.

Another standout is Frankie Mananzan, who plays the dining car Dinah. Manazan will have you rolling with laughter with her impeccable comedic timing in her number “U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D,” and her powerhouse vocals don’t hurt either. Carbone and Mananzan are accompanied by a team of other carriages played by Delaney Claussen, Jade Schaub, and Lizzy Radar. The girls are fun and flirty with their number “Locomotion,” and their air-tight harmonies and sassy smiles will have you singing the tune long after you leave the theater.

The patriarch of the story is Poppa, played by Julian Worth. Worth is intensely charismatic on stage with his silky smooth vocals in “Poppa’s Blues” and infectious personality that will have you rooting for steam to win for the rest of the performance. His tune where he tells Rusty of the legendary Starlight Express shows off his practically angelic voice that captivates every audience member. Worth particularly shines during one of the final numbers “Light at the End of the Tunnel,” leading the whole cast in the powerfully sung and skated number.

The cast of 'Starlight Express.' Photo by Laura Marshall.
The cast of ‘Starlight Express.’ Photo by Laura Marshall.

His backup buddies the Hip Hoppers, played by Lena Harmata, Grace Perkins, and Madison Harden, do a wonderful job of keeping the audience excited through their hype-up raps and cool hip hop moves. Tony Lemus is adorkable as the heavy freight sidekick of Poppa and Rusty, somehow managing to still skate effortlessly even in a fat suit.

Madison Eaton balances out this cast clearly chock full of loveable characters by playing a wonderfully unsettling Red Caboose, the villain of the tale whose never ending smile and demonic laugh will make you sit up a little straighter

As if 31 high schoolers whizzing around the stage wasn’t enough of a visual feast for the eyes in this production, the designs of the show add to this effect so much that they are nothing short of spectacular. Designed by Elaina Phalen, Ella Moore, and Natalie Jurkowski, the set is massive, with a large skating paddock that stretches into the audience and a huge arched tunnel that provides lots of rooms for all the skating tricks The detail work of the meticulously painted medallion center stage and carefully crafted ramps make for an impressive playground for these young actors to use.

The costumes, designed by Jordan McCray and Helen Kitrosser, are absolutely gorgeous, with every single cast member sporting colorful hand painted jumpsuits unique to themselves and hand crafted armor to match.

The makeup designed by Kaylie Kopicki is also impressive, with glittered lips, sharp painted shapes, and luscious false eyelashes adorning many of the faces on stage.

The props team, lead by Helen Kitrosser and Quinn Burgard, should also receive accolades for designing and decorating every helmet on stage so it fit each character perfectly, from a dainty crown atop Pearl’s to an enormous red white and blue mohawk atop Electra’s.

The real stars of this production team were Lighting Designers Kayla Claussen and Jessica Steadman. The lighting of this production was spectacular, with an incredible wall of light hanging from the back of the stage, intricate moving heads to create the effect of train lights, and even perfectly timed red control lights topping each arch on stage.

Photo courtesy of Laura Marshall.
Matt Evans. Photo courtesy of Laura Marshall.

The sound crew, lead by Elaina Phalen and Victoria De Dios, must also be commended for their perfect balancing of the orchestral music, which was played live and piped into the theater from the stage next door, with the percussiveness of the skating, and expert handling of mics and cues. The orchestra handled the score with grace and style, taking Webber’s funky tunes to new heights. This show is a beast to tackle for musicians with an almost non-stop operetta-like score that plays on for the whole two hours, and these talented high school players took the challenge head on and succeeded beautifully.

None of the show would have been possible without the vivacious direction by Philip Lee Clark. Clark clearly did not shy away from the challenge of getting all of his students up on skates, and it shows with the confidence that is bursting from every actor up on that stage.

Starlight Express is not one to be missed, so be sure to get your race on and skate over to West Potomac High School to see a show you will never forget!

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

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Starlight Express plays through May 7, 2016 at West Potomac High School- 6500 Quander Road, in Alexandria, VA. Tickets are $12 and available at the door or online.

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