Theater on Wheels 

The not-so-little play that could, 'Starlight Express,' rolls into Tucson.

Performers hoping to hoof it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza Starlight Express go through the usual musical theater auditions. They get out there onstage and show the world that they can sing, act and dance their hearts out.

But for Starlight, they can't stop there: They've got to hurl themselves across the stage on skates.

"Every single person is on roller skates," said Louanne Madorma-Williams, the touring production's associate choreographer and resident director, by phone just before the holidays. Luckily for the non-roller-skating dancers who try out, the Starlight people teach those who make it to move on wheels.

"We do the traditional auditions," Madorma-Williams explained. "This is a musical theater show. Then we train them to skate. They're rigorously trained for 10 hours a day, six days a week. It's intense. We dance on the toe stops--it's like dancing on pointe."

The reason for all the roller motion is that the show is all about locomotion. Dolled up in pistons and ball bearings, every one of the 26 performers dances the part of a railroad engine or a train car. Madorma-Williams' husband, Drew Williams, plays the villain, a mean engine by the name of Greaseball. Tucson native Clarissa Gracela glides out as Pearl, the female lead.

Weighing up to 55 pounds, the men's costumes are "intricate, huge." The girl trains, natch, get a sexy Las Vegas railroad look, with low-cut tops to go along with their toggles and wheels. Knee pads are de rigueur for both sexes.

The show, rolling into Tucson next week for eight performances at Centennial Hall, is loosely based on the old children's storybook The Little Engine That Could. But this being Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man who brought Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita to life, he translates the sweet, simple story of the train who "knew it could" into a Broadway spectacle of mammoth proportions. Apart from the human engines speeding across the stage in intricate choreography ("Crashes have happened, but there are fewer as the tour goes on; people are whipping by but they have to know their routes"), the producers count some 1,400 lasers, pyrotechnics and optic effects.

A brand-new 3-D film on an enormous screen, dreamed up by scenic designer John Napier, sends the trains careening out into the audience.

"It brings you into the race; you feel part of it," said Madorma-Williams.

David Yazbek, the composer and lyricist for The Full Monty, joined Lloyd Webber in writing new songs for this edition of Starlight, dipping into every genre from pop, rock and rap to blues and country-Western.

"It's musical theater meets MTV," Madorma-Williams said.

Starlight is not as familiar to American audiences as Lloyd Webber's other hits--it was on Broadway for a couple of years in the late '80s--but it's been running strong in Europe for years. Opening in London in 1984, it didn't close until 2002, becoming, after Cats, the second longest-running musical on the English stage. A group in Bochum, Germany, built an arena 16 years ago specifically to show Starlight, and they've been staging it ever since.

"It's a huge spectacle, and it was so new to Europeans," Madorma-Williams said, explaining the Germanic predilection for Starlight's locomotion. "It was the very first musical extravaganza over there."

Madorma-Williams has been with Starlight in one form or another almost continuously since 1992. A native of Virginia, she quit college at Old Dominion U to light out for Europe on a West Side Story tour. When she saw Starlight, she said to herself, "I have to do it." She landed a spot in the chorus in the German production at the age of 21, and danced there nine years, with time off for a stint in Saturday Night Fever. (She met her husband in Germany, and the two now have a 4-year-old son, who is touring the country with them and a nanny.)

"I worked my way up in management. I became assistant dance captain, then dance captain, then assistant to the director."

Arlene Phillips gets credit for the original choreography, and on the road, "I'm her eyes," Madorma-Williams said.

She doesn't miss the dancing too much, she said, partly because, "I'm on my skates, teaching, all the time. I get a lot out of the process. You see the payoff in the production. And you've taught the dancers new skills. It's so fulfilling."

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