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Webber's 'Starlight Express' steams into London - on skates

Starlight Express. Musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer. Trevor Nunn, director; John Napier, set designer; David Hersey, lighting designer; Richard Stilgoe, lyrics; Arlene Phillips, disco choreographer. Starring Lou Satton and Stephanie Lawrence.

The spring season has begun in London's West End. And if composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest extravaganza, ''Starlight Express'' is anything to go by, it will be a theater season to remember.

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Audiences have come to expect the spectacular (''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' ''Evita'') from this 36-year-old British impresario; unlikely subjects couched in an operatic soft-rock style have become a trademark. And when, in his most recent show, ''Cats,'' he triumphantly transformed an entire theater into a tin pan alley filled with anthropomorphic felines, Lloyd Webber seemed to have reached the limits of musical imagination.

Not so. His current offering goes further. It is above all else a visual experience beyond anything yet attempted in theater - despite a few drawbacks.

It's a simple story, extravagantly told. The theme this time is trains - that sing, dance, fall in love, and race each other at breakneck speed. To help create a sense of locomotion, it's performed on roller skates throughout. But that's only the beginning. Award-winning set designer John Napier (''Nicholas Nickleby,'' ''Cats'') has created a three-tier track for these human trains. Indeed, the Apollo Victoria, where the musical is playing, has been gutted to the tune of (STR)2.2 million ($3.08 million), making it the most expensive show ever staged in this country: You step not merely into a theater, but into a world where wheels whiz by and around you from every direction.

The seating space has been reduced considerably to maximize movement. And when train races take place, Perspex (similar to Plexiglas) flaps silently unfold along the highest tier like petals of a giant flower; the center-stage suspension bridge tilts and swivels to connect one track with another; and, most audacious of all, two huge video screens descend so audiences can watch every move of the 3-D action.

And the plot?

Well, you can't have everything. Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn (''Nicholas Nickleby,'' ''Cats'') have clearly opted for spectacle over substance. While the mode is high-tech, the message is, ironically, pure nostalgia: Faster, slicker trains may come on the scene, notably diesel and electric, but sweet steam is where choo-choo lovers' hearts will always lie.

Rusty is the steam antihero of this heavy-metal tale. With an angelic face and singing voice to match, he chugs cheerfully around the stage looking for his lost place on the track. Macho Greaseball, the American diesel, and his chain gang, a la the rock-and-roll '50s, do everything to make sure he doesn't find it. Then comes cool Electra, the electric train, which outchugs them all.

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The action centers on three heats and a grand final race. Many other trains take part - men as engines, each with a pretty-girl carriage hitched behind. There are a few subplots as well, such as Pearl, the classy pink carriage, who waits longingly for the one train that can woo-woo her. Then there's Dinah, the dining car, who hitches up with Greaseball, gets led astray, and ultimately ends up ''uncoupled'' on the wrong side of the tracks.

But it is that Great Train in the Sky which has been given the task of delivering whatever quasi-serious moral-to-the-story there is. Rusty knows his only hope of winning the race is through a helping hand from the celestial Starlight Express. Having never seen it, however, he begins to doubt. Only when belief is at its lowest ebb does Starlight Express reveal itself to be The Spirit Inside; believe in yourself, it tells Rusty, then you'll win the race.

And so he does.

Despite this ho-hum plot, the pluses of the show are many. For starters, disco choreographer Arlene Phillips, in this her stage debut, has made her mark by creating compulsively watchable routines on wheels. The dishbowl stage means that many numbers require dancers to walk up the sides like flies, dash around the theater, then whiz back again - sometimes at speeds of 30 m.p.h. - to land in perfect alignment. How those performers have achieved such precision, along with rhythm, is a testament to the enormous amount of training that has been invested in turning talented dancers into slick skaters - or with some, vice versa.

As for impressive lighting, some observers have dubbed designer David Hersey the star of the show. When, for instance, the Starlight Express reveals itself to Rusty, it's truly a burst of beauty.

Lloyd Webber's music also has its moments, but not, sadly, as many as it might. The musical score is an effective potpourri - rock-and-roll, country-and-western, blues - but no one could call it innovative.

And herein lies the production's main drawback. ''Starlight Express'' is a highly commercial piece of work, something that is apparent from the instant the first body-bracing chord is played: The show is clearly a cross between ''Star Wars'' and ''Grease.'' As such, it's attempting to attract audiences through glitzy, largely borrowed effect, rather than through anything that is, in artistic terms, profoundly original.

As for lyrics, Richard Stilgoe, in this his first collaboration with Lloyd Webber, has proved he has some of the wit but none of the depth of Lloyd Webber's former partner, Tim Rice. Stilgoe too often goes for the easy rhyme - ''freight is great'' or ''gotta hustle, feel my muscle'' - then reprises them to the point that they seriously hinder rather than help.

The show is also several songs too long. The message is pounded home and the action complete long before the company sings the finale.

Even so, the total impact makes for one of those rare nights at the theater guaranteeed to appeal to audiences of all ages. And we're provided a few moving moments from American ex-preacher Lou Satton's bluesy singing both as Rusty's father and as the Starlight Express, along with Stephanie Lawrence, as Pearl, belting out the torch song ''Only He.'' But there could have been more. And that's the great pitfall of such a visually powerful production. It too easily glosses over a lack of emotional substance: We are engaged visually, but not viscerally.

The same artistic team, Lloyd Webber and Nunn, are currently working together on yet another musical. If only this time they could combine their prodigious talents for theatrical effect, with some old-fashioned heart-and-soul. Now that would be the real dazzler.

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