In a preemptive strike against the critics, director Trevor Nunn and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber have declared that "Starlight Express" is intended merely to entertain, like Disneyland, giving the impression that watching the musical is as exciting as riding, say, The Matterhorn. It would be more accurate to say that watching "Starlight Express" is as exciting as watching somebody else ride The Matterhorn.
The London version of the show, in which roller skaters pretend to be trains, was designed so that the skaters whizzed all around the audience, creating a dizzying sense of involvement. Here, unless you're in a few rows of onstage seats that the skaters encircle, the excitement is always at a distance.
The music, Webber's usual characterless mush, is not likely to involve you. As for the technologically awesome set, it owes more to disco than to Disney. When a gigantic metal bridge - suspended from the top of the stage - is moved up and down, lights glittering on all sides, it recalls Studio 54 rather than the Magic Kingdom.
The set is so mechanically elaborate that when the actors are careening up and down its moving bridges and raked curves, they are overshadowed by the spectacle of monstrous machines going about their complex tasks.
A useful Disney touch might have been to use audioanimatronic puppets instead of actors, since so few acting skills are required. Steve Fowler, Janet Williams Adderley, Reva Rice and Greg Mowry have humorous or touching moments, but the overall feeling is of cartoon figures. Wouldn't audioanimatronics be easier?
What makes Disney's work so appealing is that he never lost his childlike sense of wonder. No such thing is evident here. It is all cynical calculation of a very adult sort.
There is no doubt that, had he mind to it, Andrew Lloyd Webber could devise a musical about anthropomorphic fish, frogs, elevators, or even microwave ovens.
There is also no doubt that were he so to do, his loyal director and designer, Trevor Nunn and John Napier, would stage it or them at the unflinching cost of millions and to the squealing delight of thousands.
This redoubtable team, which a few years ago gave us "Cats," with people pretending to be felines pretending to be people, last night at the Gershwin Theater gave us "Starlight Express," the latest British musical extravaganza, where people pretend to be all manner of railway trains pretending to be people.
The result is the largest train set in the world and a children's musical intended for adults who don't want to go to the theater to see people pretending just to be just boring old people.
It is, by the way, performed on roller skates. Sensible theatergoers might want the whole disastrous farrago to be put on ice - but luckily there are enough theatergoers of a less demanding persuasion to guarantee that "Starlight Express" will be a big fat hit.
It appears to be intended as a theatrical night on the town of technical wizardry - and as simply such, it succeeds.
There is not a great deal of drama in the evening. There is a race for a silver dollar - the action, such as it is, takes place in the mind of child, whose fluting voice-over provides a commentary to the event - which has to be run twice, and there are two preliminary heats as warm-ups.
The philosophical issue is the battle between steam, diesel, and electricity as locomotive power. There is a love story between Rusty - a dear little steam loco - and his flighty young tender, Pearl.
There are villains - Greaseball, an American diesel, Electra, an electric engine apparently from outer space, and Red Caboose, a two-faced character who is just the end.
And there is also an inspirational old steam advocate, a man who can see coal in the sky and sing spirituals about it, called Poppa.
Lloyd Webber's eclectic music - he has virtually patented the eclectic guitar - turns out to be an undistinguished medley encompassing the likes of rock, blues, and spirituals, and is quite often rather unmemorably tuneful.
Unmemorable is also the just word for Richard Stilgoe's simplistic, nearly childish, lyrics.
The real stardust here is, of course, not the music, or lyrics, not even the story, but the scenery, staging, and the hot flashes of David Hersey's ever thickening lighting plot.
It is all a bit like Disneyland, a bit like Hollywood special effects, and a bit like those old Victorian spectacles at theaters like London's Drury Lane, that put real racehorses on stage, or flooded it for a sea battle.
Like "Cats" before it, "Starlight Express" not only gives its audience value for money, but actually lets it see how it has been spent. "Starlight Express" takes theatrical conspicuous consumption to new and dizzying heights.
Everything except the roller-skating actors appears to be hydraulic and electric. If it doesn't move, it lights up. It's like a child's dream of an erector set.
Let me be fair. Nunn and Napier have done a terrific job, but unlike "Les Miserables" - for they are responsible for both legs of Britain's current double-whammy colossus bestriding Broadway - I cannot believe the job was worth doing.
"Les Miserables" is not precisely high art, but at least it is extraordinary, unforgettable entertainment and enormous fun. "Starlight Express" is honest-to-badness nonsense.
While "Les Miserables" is more or less the same as in London, "Starlight Express" is very different. Apparently it has been changed, numbers altered, and the show subjected to much rewriting. This I didn't really notice. One mediocrity is very like another mediocrity - and all cats look gray by starlight.
What is much more to the point is the actual physical staging. In London the action effectively enclosed the audience. The roller-skating tracks went right round the theater, and people could also follow the action on video monitors placed all over the auditorium.
The video results looked oddly like a roller derby, which, in fact, is unknown in Britain, and was consequently more of a novelty there than it would have been here.
In any event the decision has now been made to restrict the action to the stage, and although there is a loss here, Napier's setting, depicting key points of the United States in neat little vignetted sketches, and using bridges, ramps, and turntables as if he were building a spaceship, is absolutely, unreservedly incredible.
However once I had seen it work, I ceased to be interested in it, simply because it is so mechanical. I felt rather the same about Nunn's concept (or perhaps Lloyd Webber's) of putting his performers on roller skates. The bottom line is that I would never actually pay to see people do anything on roller skates.
Aurally the show sounds as if you are listening to a recording.
In a full-page program note, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber modestly explains that he conceived his new musical, ''Starlight Express,'' as an entertainment ''event'' for children who love trains. Over two numbing hours later, you may find yourself wondering exactly whose children he has in mind. A confusing jamboree of piercing noise, routine roller-skating, misogyny and Orwellian special effects, ''Starlight Express'' is the perfect gift for the kid who has everything except parents.
The high-tech scenic environment, designed by John Napier, is something to see, if only at intermission. A three-level Erector set of simulated train tracks, the design recalls a previous Gershwin Theater occupant, ''Sweeney Todd'' - had that production been dipped in pink and purple bubble gum. The principal feature of Mr. Napier's hydraulic construction is a huge steel-and-Plexiglas suspension bridge that twirls and lowers, flashing like a large disco chandelier. Beware of that bridge. Its descent usually indicates that it's time for the cast to skate around in circles until theatergoers of all ages surrender their appetite for a post-performance snack.
According to Richard Stilgoe's libretto, these bouts of skating are ''heats'' in a ''great race'' to determine ''the fastest locomotive in the world.'' The prize is the least costly prop on stage - a silver dollar. But who are the competitors? At first, the audience is introduced to rival trains from various nations (each presented according to ethnic stereotype) - and yet those elaborate identifications are soon forgotten as we're asked to concentrate on Rusty (a steam train), Electra (an electric train) and Greaseball (a diesel). The rules of the race are equally baffling, and so are the arbitrary, anticlimactic results. As chaotically choreographed by Arlene Phillips, the heats of ''Starlight Express'' make television's old roller derbies seem as orderly as a Rockettes kick line.
In the London production of ''Starlight,'' there is at least the novelty of being surrounded by the skaters, who circle the entire auditorium. In New York, the tracks extend only a few rows in front of the proscenium; for most of the audience, the experience is about as involving as standing on the sidelines while other people take one of the lesser rides at Disneyland. There have been other counterproductive alterations in ''Starlight Express'' for Broadway as well. The show has been ''Americanized'' by the plastering of signs like ''Kalamazoo'' and ''Cincinnati'' on Mr. Napier's set. There are some new musical arrangements, which, along with the amplification, succeed in making a theatrical extravaganza sound as if it were piped in from a Far Rockaway junior prom.
As in Mr. Lloyd Webber's ''Cats,'' the songs are intended to personify the different breeds of train. To this end, Mr. Stilgoe, who is not to be confused with T. S. Eliot, has written sporadically audible lyrics like ''Freight is great'' and ''Woo-woo, nobody does it like a steam train!'' The score is sadder still. Instead of aspiring to his usual Puccini variations, Mr. Lloyd Webber has gone ''funky,'' English style, by writing pastiche versions of American pop music - with an emphasis on blues, gospel and rap. Short of a Lennon Sisters medley of the Supremes' greatest hits, soul music couldn't get much more soulless than this.
The show's patronizing attitude toward black pop is matched by its view of women. Grizabella, the top female cat of ''Cats,'' is a prostitute, and so ''Starlight Express'' features Belle, ''a sleeping car with a heart of gold.'' But all the women are subservient carriages vying for the favors of mostly abusive male locomotives - with only an androgynous male caboose occupying lower social status. This hierarchical scheme is reinforced by Ms. Phillips's muscle-flexing choreography, seemingly inspired by male physical-culture magazines, and by the robotic costumes, which emphasize codpieces for the men and tight corsets and miniskirts for their groupies.
Like other Lloyd Webber projects, from ''Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'' to ''Cats'' and ''Requiem,'' this one tries to mitigate such vulgarity by wrapping itself in the deity. In fact, the title of ''Starlight Express'' alludes to God, and when His spirit appears in Act II, Mr. Napier and the lighting designer David Hersey are inspired to achieve the one effect worthy of their work in ''Les Miserables.'' A nocturnal celestial blur suddenly obliterates the dehumanizing metallic harshness of the set and, for that brief instant, renders the show transporting.
Otherwise, this is an evening about the prevention of traffic accidents, and it has been directed accordingly by Trevor Nunn. No outstanding skaters, dancers or actors surface in his cast, but the stronger pop voices belong to Greg Mowry, Reva Rice, Jane Krakowski and Steve Fowler. For humor, there is Robert Torti's Greaseball - an Elvis impersonation worthy of Liberty Weekend. The company's youngest and most vocal performer is Braden Danner, playing a little boy who tries to impose order and drum up suspense by reciting a continuous play-by-play commentary through the public-address system. The narration, however, has been recorded on tape. As the Playbill explains, Braden ''is currently appearing live as Gavroche in 'Les Miserables' '' - the living proof that kids are not as gullible as the adults behind ''Starlight Express'' seem to think.