From Roller Skates to Ice Skates.
Starlight Express is the story of a young boy's dream of high-speed train races come to life. The competition among the steam, electric and diesel engines is fierce. Who will win? If Rusty the Steam Engine triumphs, he might also win the love of Pearl the Observation Car, who can't make up her heart. But to have any chance of winning, Rusty must first summon a fantastic new power - the power of Starlight Express!
When Starlight Express premiered in London, in 1984 it involved the whole cast dancing on roller skates. Robin Cousins, an earlier admirer of the show, had the inspiration for a fabulous show on ice. Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Feld Entertainment also had similar thoughts about the show. In 1995 Kenneth Feld invited Robin Cousins to choreograph and direct a version of Starlight Express on ice.
Other members of the creative team were: Nigel Wright who worked on the musical score, Mark Fisher who was the scenic designer, Frank Krenz, costume designer and LeRoy Bennett who was the lighting designer.
The plot to Starlight Express on Ice was the same as the Later London revised plot, lacking Caboose. The biggest differences in this version to any other version of Starlight Express were the unique costume designs, the use of ice skates and the Starlight Express on Ice set. Also the cast consisted of professional ice skaters, lip-syncing to a pre-recorded musical score.
It began as an idea for an animated film and has become the second-longest-running musical in London Theatre history. Now, Starlight Express, based on the musical spectacular by legendary theatrical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, is a triumphant and colorful $8 million ice extravaganza presented by Feld Entertainment and featuring cutting-edge choreography and creative direction by 1980 Olympic gold medalist Robin Cousins.
One might wonder why a musical about a little boy's dream of high-speed train races has galvanised the public's imagination since its opening in 1984. Robin Cousins, who has himself appeared in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, thinks he knows the answer.
"Besides being an absolutely original piece of musical theater, full of fantastic songs, colorful characters and raw speed and power," says Cousins, "Starlight Express also tells a charming, wonderful story."
He elaborate, "It's really the tale of the little engine that could. Rusty the Steam Engine suffers from low self-esteem. He does not consider himself a winner. It's only through the advice of the old steamer, Poppa, that Rusty discovers his inner strengths."
Cousins notes that the other characters who inhabit Starlight's futuristic environs reinforce the show's themes of disillusionment and self-discovery. "They're all on personal journeys," he comments, "whether it's Pearl realising who she really loves, or Electra and Greaseball discovering that bigger and newer isn't always better."
People have been telling such stories since the days of Aesop, Cousins observes. "It's these kinds of human stories that give the show its heart."
From Roller Skates to Ice Skates
When Starlight Express premiered in London in 1984, critics hailed it as the first musical ever performed on roller skates. Robin Cousins was among the show's earliest admirers. Yet, in his admiration, there bubbled a wayward fancy.
"I thought, 'A spectacle about train races, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber," Cousins recalls. "'What fabulous stuff for an ice show!'"
Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Feld Entertainment, harbored similar thoughts. In 1995, he invited Cousins to choreograph and direct an on-ice version of Starlight Express, and Cousins, who knows likemindedness when he sees it, accepted. In short order, he found himself consulting in the show's musical score with Nigel Wright, who has orchestrated other Lloyd Webber scoreds, including those for the film versions of Evita and Cats.
"For this production of Starlight, we had the luxury of working from five earlier versions," remarks Cousins. "With Nigel's help and Andrew's blessing, we've put together a score that, we feel, clarifies the story and characterizations without harming Andrew's original conception."
It was Kenneth Feld who insisted that this high-speed story of racing trains would be best served on full ice, in the round. It was also he who assembled the rest of the all-star creative team, including scenic designer Mark Fisher, costume designer Frank Krenz and lighting designer LeRoy Bennett. All these virtuosos worked with Robin Cousins in 1995, on the visionary Feld production The Wizard of Oz on Ice. "The set, lighting, and even the costumes allow us to transform the ice into a different environment," Cousins says.
Cousins credits talent coordinator Judy Thomas and associate choreographer Cindy Stuart with helping him put together Starlight's outstanding company of skaters. "These skaters form a brilliant ensemble," Cousins comments. "I think they demonstrate that this show glides well on more than one kind of skate."
Starlit Skating Steps
"Musically, this show was right up my alley," says Robin Cousins, the director and choreographer of Starlight Express. "It has a big Broadway style that I love and am very familiar with. Choreographing it was easy."
Cousins, the 1980 Olympic gold medalist in men's figure skating, knows whereof he speaks. He has created choreography for many top skaters, as well as for TV, film and his own ice spectaculars. In 1995, he choreographed The Wizard of Oz on Ice for Feld Entertainment, following it a year later with choreography for the the Feld-produced Walt Disney's World On Ice - Toy Story. An Englishman, he has acted in London productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Cats. Says Producer Kenneth Feld, "No one knows theater and skating better than Robin."
Fine. But creating intricate maneuvers for skaters dressed like trains - isn't that difficult?
"Well, O.K.," Cousins laughs, "the tough part is remembering that you have to choreograph for the character, not the great skater you're working with. My job is not about skating. It's about creating and defining character and story through skating."
For Starlight, Cousins went to a rink and devised steps for each of the show's characters, while associate choreographer Cindy Stuart video-taped him. Using the tapes as reference, the pair then charted each character's movements on pattern sheets, eventually assigning skaters to specific positions.
Cousins credits Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for making his job as choreographer even easier than it might otherwise have been. "I told him, 'Nobody writes better music for the ice than you do.' He's a skating fan. He took it as a compliment."
The set for Starlight Express on Ice measured 100 x 200 feet. LeRoy Bennett utilzed three different types of moving lights. 96 light-diffusing instruments, 380 stationary lights, 92 flashing railroad lights to signal the start of each race, and one reflecting mirror ball.
Each of the four 1,500-pound, custom-designed flatcars that bring audience members close to the action of Starlight Express contains 17 seats and can support 5,000 pounds. Designed by Mark Fisher and constructed by Hagenbeck-Wallace, inc, the cars are powered by electric motors and hydraulics. Studded tires and rear-wheel steering give the flatcars turn-on-a-dime maneuverability on the ice.
Below, 3 diagrams of how the races were staged for this particular set design for the show.
Costume Designer Frank Krenz loves a big challenge. For Starlight Express, he faced a huge one.
"I had to design costumes that make skaters look like super-fast trains" he observes. "They also had to be able to move in them. It wasn't easy, but I think we've succeeded."
Succeeded, indeed. Director-Choreographer Robin Cousins calls the Starlight Express costumes "Stunning - some of the most clever and ingenious that Frank has ever done. When I saw them, all I could say was, 'Wow!'"
To get that reaction, Krenz started by reading the script of Starlight Express and listening to its music. He also read books about its cast of legendary trains. After thinking about the trains as characters with personalities, he started drawing.
He drew for months, tracing ideas for costumes over drawings of skaters in action pose. "I use a blue pencil," he explains, "because its lines disappear in photocopies."
When he finally had drawings he liked, he used black pencil to highlight the details he wanted to keep. He then ran that drawing through his copier. The finished version was printed on heavy paper for later painting. Other copies were sent for review to Robin Cousins. "Luckily for me," says Krenz, "Robin's a very visual person".
Luckily, too, Krenz had some top-notch helpers when it came time to ctually build the costumes. One was Parsons-Meares, the New York - based design firm that built the costumes for the original Broadway productions of Starlight Express and Cats. "They hand-painted practically every inch of costume fabric for this show and did a spectacular job," says Krenz. "So did Nino Novellino, the sculptor, who molded all of our leg and chest armor from high-tech plastics."
Krenz used shape and color to help divide the characters in Starlight Express into four major groups: diesel trains, electric trains, steam trains and carriages. "For example," he says, "the four carriages all wear tutus shaped like train wheels. They also wear stockings with train-track patterns along the seams. The ultra-modern electric trains are even more sleek than the diesels, while the steam trains are rumpled and rust-colored because they're out of date."
Krenz, who has designed costumes for other Feld ice productions, as well as for film, Broadway and television, admits that he as his favorite Starlight characters. "I like Rusty, Poppa and Dustin," he says, "because they're the most human. They face challenges head-on and finally triumph." Sort of like their costume designer.
Every performer in Starlight Express wears some sort of headgear. On average, each train helmet measures 22 inches long, 14 inches high and weighs about six pounds. Greaseball's pompadour is actually sculptured latex.
The custom-trimmed colored belts worn by the skaters in Starlight Express are made of saddle-weight leather and are similar in heft and design to the belts worn by weight lifters. The two loops that protrude from each belt are made of tough, leather-covered nylon to withstand the pull of skaters who grab onto them during races and ensemble numbers.
"Electra is like a rock and roll superstar, sort of fantastic and futuristic," remarks Frank Krenz. "He exudes danger, which triggered the idea for his costume colors: yellow and black, the colors of warning signs." Adds Robin Cousins: "He doesn't have to fend for himself. He's got his Components."
"Of all the passenger cars, Buffy the Buffet Car is the most flirtatious," observes Robin Cousins. "She's ready for anything, anytime." To distinguish her from Dinah the Dining Car, Frank Krenz made her costume quilted and tufted like a banquette. Her bodice and sleeve decorations are folded damask napkins.
"Dinah is our country-western dining car," says Robin Cousins, "sort of a Dolly Parton-ish cowgirl who, in the course of the show, is jilted by Greaseball." Her costume, designed by Frank Krenz and trimmed in white lace, is made primarily from red vinyl tablecloth material.
"Greaseball? Why, he's Elvis in his hey-day, the coolest train in town!" laughs costume designer Frank Krenz. "We took a lot of inspiration for styling his costume from the sleek chrome grilles of classic American cars. We've also accentuated his muscles. After all, he;s the guy who's pumping iron!"
"Ashley is the smoking car, and she moves like she's in a lounge," comments Robin Cousins. "She's our been-there, done-that, done-everything girl." Her costume, says Frank Krenz, "makes her look like one big tobacco product, right down to the wisps of smoke wafting from her hands."
"Pearl the Observation Car has an innocence about her that Buffy, Dinah and Ashley have already lost," observed associate choreographer Cindy Stuart. "She's like the new girl in town." Pearl's skirt is cast in Mylar with a chrome-colored finish, and the windows on it have a hidden detail: a vista of the American West.
"Rusty is the one who doesn't belong to any of the groups," remarks director-choreographer Robin Cousins. "He's the odd man out. At first, he thinks he's not good enough to race. But with the help of his guiding force, Poppa, he becomes the little engine that could."
"Poppa is the father figure," says Starlight Express director-choreographer Robin Cousins. "He's the mentor, the leader, the one who believes in you so much that he speaks only encouraging words." Poppa's costume, like Rusty's, is based, in part, on the classic American engineer outfit.
The cast, all highly skilled ice dancers, mimed to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Little is known about the artistes who lent their voices to this production, other than Poppa was reportedly sung by Roger Ridley
|Rusty||Norm Proft||Pearl||Jennifer Schmitz|
|Poppa||Reggie Mack||Dinah||Julie Brault|
|Greaseball||Fabrice Garattoni||Ashley||Natalia Zagorodnikova|
|Electra||Hank Green||Buffy||Nadia Kovalevskaya|
|Rocky 1||Luke Craig||Krupp||Mark Naylor|
|Rocky 2||Philip Garvis||Wrench||Lisa Dernsjo|
|Rocky 3||Richard Stringer||Purse||Brent Frank|
|Flat-top||Forrest McKinnon||Joule||Anne MacWilliams|
|Dustin||Scott Irvine||Volta||Lisa Bell|
|Bobo||Serguei Kouznetsov.||Race Marshall||Alison Bennett|
|Espresso||Vadim Shebeco||Race Marshall||Monique Vander Velden|
|Cesar||Jeffrey Trott||Race Marshall||Amanda Marshall|
|Canuck||Cameron Medhurst||Race Marshall||Amanda Frank|
|Nintendo||Tomoaki Koyama||Flying Marshall||Gig Siruno|
|Prince of Wales||Nikolay Ulanov||Flying Marshall||Stuart Clays|
|Flying Marshall||Stuart Bradley|