Take a look at what musical entertainment is playing this summer at Rockford’s Starlight Theatre.
Located on the campus of Rock Valley College in Rockford, Starlight Theatre has consistently provided the area with exceptional musical theater for 46 summers. With Starlight Express, Xanadu, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Les Misérables on the docket, the 47th season promises to be no exception.
In the past, Starlight’s repertory offerings have included such elaborately staged Broadway hits as Miss Saigon, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, pulled off with impressively by producer/director Mike Webb and his talented group of cast and crew members.
When it comes to daunting production challenges, this season may have them all beat, beginning with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Starlight Express, where actors portray toy trains and perform entirely on roller skates. Next is Xanadu, a 1980 roller disco cult film that debuted as a Broadway musical in 2007 – again, with performers on roller skates. That’s followed by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the blockbuster Les Misérables.
Staging two roller skating musicals back-to-back wasn’t exactly what Webb had in mind. “I was told I couldn’t get Starlight, which I’ve wanted to do at Starlight for years, because the names go so well together, but I couldn’t get the production rights,” he says.
While he patiently waited for a go on Starlight Express, he committed to the other two shows and Xanadu. “It was Gene Kelly’s last film, and the score is full of the music of Electric Light Orchestra, which every baby boomer recognizes,” says Webb.
He had picked The Sound of Music as the fourth production when he got word, in December, that Starlight was available. Webb jumped at it, even though it was too late to cancel Xanadu. Preparing the actors to perform on wheels was the first obstacle. “Everyone’s learned to skate, and Skateland and Rockford Skate Co. very generously allowed them to practice there,” he says.
During Starlight, toy trains compete to see which is the fastest, and tracks cover the stage and extend into the house, with sirens and red lights flashing during the race scenes.
“We run track all through the house, with steep inclines and half-pipes,” says Webb. “Everyone has to go over a half-pipe to get onstage. Costumes are a kind of motocross, padded body armor, which is good, because no matter how skilled you are, when you’re on roller skates, you’re going to fall down. All of the performers have been good sports about it, bruises and all.”
The two skating shows can share some pieces of scenery, but they are far different productions. “We go from a cast of 30 in Starlight to nine in Xanadu,” Webb says. “Audience members can actually sit onstage with Dionysus during the performance, at no extra charge. It’s short, too, about 90 minutes.”
Muses from Mt. Olympus coming to Venice Beach, Calif., to inspire a young street artist, whose dream is to own a roller disco, and it presents its own challenges. Among them: The muses emerge from a street drawing which depicts them; Pegasus flies; Zeus materializes in a burst of light.
In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, child characters are played by adults, and audience members have the opportunity to spell onstage. With a small cast (nine) and no scene changes, it gives everyone a bit of a breather. And they need it.
“Les Miz may be the biggest and most challenging show I’ve done,” Webb says. “We’re doing the full production, which runs about 150 minutes.”
The original set design incorporated a turntable, for seamless scene changes during the 20-minute opening, which follows Jean Valjean from the chain gang, to the bishop’s house, his capture and the church.
“The turntable design element has been protected from licensing, so we can’t use it,” Webb declares. “That not only complicates the scene changes, but also the orchestration, which has been timed to coincide with the speed of the turntable. So I had to re-stage the entire opening scene to match the length of the orchestrations which cannot be altered – a challenge for anyone. The barricade design element was also restricted from licensing, sowe had to figure something else out there.”
With its huge cast, mammoth scene changes, hundreds of light cues and a 35-piece orchestra, Les Miz promises a fantastic experience tfor audiences.
No matter the obstacles, Webb declares, every season, it all works out. “I call it the magic of Starlight,” he says with a laugh. “Everything just seems to come when I need it. For example, I needed a desk for Xanadu for the tap-dancing number. Just when I’d run out of resources, someone from the College of Medicine called about a bunch of big desks he was getting rid of. That sort of thing happens all of the time.
“Everybody pulls together to make it happen, from the actors to the people behind the scenes, to the folks who come to watch. Starlight Theatre is a community treasure, and after 29 years, I’m happy to continue to be a part of its magic.”