Review of “The Last Starfighter: The Musical” —
Geekdom, extreme geekdom, does not just have depths, my friends; it has heights.
1982. Atari Games, to celebrate the creation of their Atari 2600 Pac-Man Game (which, I might add, was one of the most pathetic, slapdash, slipshod piece of programming ever to churn out of a development studio) held a massive “Pac Man Day” in Citicorp Center in New York City. Being a confessed “Pac Maniac”, I couldn’t resist. To complete the picture, you have to know that I had that great uncontrolled 11-year-old hair of unequal length, and an old army fatigue jacket with a “PAC MAN” t-shirt transfer on the back. Now, it was me and literally THOUSANDS of kids jammed into the inadequately-planned celebration area at the Center, with all of us vying for places to stand and have fun. They had a pac-man “look alike” contest, which only had maybe a dozen of us actually show enough nerve to go up on stage, and due to a REALLY LOUD chomping sound, I placed somewhere around third. Of course, this is up to dispute, because the place essentially turned into a riot (I can still recall my father up on a balcony, screaming at me to stand against a wall so I wouldn’t be stepped on) and they generally just THREW stuff into the crowd, but I was third.
This is a memory I will hold dear until all of time. It was not a depth. It was a pinnacle. It was a heady, breathless moment in time in which my own fannish interest in something led me to a situation, a unique situation, that could barely be explained to others without sounding truly off-the-wall, absolutely beyond saving. And like many such unique events, you hold a fear in your heart, beyond the memory, a fear that as time goes on you will not feel such things again.
So, as I sit here typing these words to you, I know I have achieved something of equal, deep geekdom.
I have attended an off-broadway musical based on The Last Starfighter.
For two precious weeks, already down 3 performances, the Storm Theatre in New York City, just next to Times Square, is playing host to The Last Starfighter, a musical based on the film of the same name. If spoilers do not interest you, if you only want the simplest of directions and want to make the next right move, then heed these words: if you live within driving, walking, bus or train distance of New York City, see this musical. Immediately.
Within the Storm Theatre’s well-worn but proud walls, up several flights of stairs and in one of a few dozen seats, you will join an elite and unique crowd who have seen this musical put forth on its debut run.
This is not a big-budget production, billowing with special effects and the smell of untold thousands of dollars of smoke machines and sound equipment assaulting your senses. The sets, a trailer park and non-descript spaceport, are constructed on simple flats, painted professionally, and all put on with the air of summer stock.
However, the performers, production team, and staff were all true professionals, knowing what people in their business know; all show business is silly, but performances demand respect. And delivered as this musical was, with straightforward verve, full energy, and a healthy regard for the work, a very special moment happened for me, as it may very well for you.
Natural questions abound in the mind, especially if you know of the plot of the original movie; where could songs go? How would it be arranged? What sort of music would this be? Allow me to give an overview of what awaits.
We meet the residents of a trailer park where nothing much exciting happens, but where they speak of a recent story that changed their lives (“Starlite, Starbrite”). William Parry, playing Otis, leads the rest of the cast, eleven actors of all ages, into an overview of the story in a voice caring, learned, and professional. Returning to a month before, in April of 1983, we meet Alex Rogan, played by the clear-eyed Charlie Pollock, who is awaiting a loan for college so he can stop being the repairboy for the entire park (“Somebody, Somewhere, Something”).
Alex’s girlfriend, Maggie, played by the beautiful Julia Motyka, joins the rest of the residents in marvelling how his abilities with a video game could have led to the wonderous events that followed (“Little Did We Know (The Game)”).
Alex has scored a new record on The Last Starfighter, but has also learned he will not have the loans to go to college. Despairing, he is counseled by Otis that life has many surprises and things to look forward to (“Things Change”).
Alex is then greeted by a strange huckster character named Centauri, brought to life by the spot-on performance of Joseph Kolinski. In the original film, this part was played as a non-singing role by the immortal Robert Preston of The Music Man fame, and it is a pleasure to see Kolinski channel Preston as he invites Alex out to the stars (“Out of This World”). He is told that the video game he has been playing has actually trained him to be a Starfighter, and Centauri and Alex travel to the planet Rylos, where a battle to save the universe is underway.
After being introduced to the aliens and creatures at the Rylos Port (“Star League Hymn”) a hologram appears in the spaceport, where Bernardo De Paula’s Zur, the son of the leader of Rylos, proclaims his anger and revenge for being shut out of his right to succession (“Father to Son”).
Meanwhile, back on earth, the android double of Alex has been confusing Maggie by reacting strangely when she confesses her devotion to him. The women of the trailer park, voiced with passion by Deegee Brandemour, Jan Leigh Herndon and Georga Osborne, explain to Maggie the power of love and its many forms (“Love is Like Water”).
Alex, uncomfortable with being put in the place of an actual starfighter, and learning that Centauri may have recruited him for a profit motive, returns to Earth. Centauri asks him to reconsider and be a part of the battle, one which involves Earth (“A Hero”). He is given a device to summon Centauri if he changes his mind.
We return to the present day, as Alex Rogan’s kid brother Louis, played with crispness by 9th grader Travis Walters, begs to be given the chance to tell the story of the assassin alien that came to town. He launches into a slightly ribald and slapstick retelling of the events, bringing in playboy bunnies, floating windows, and the rest of the town into the story and an all-cast dance number (“Zandozan”). I must confess, at this moment, how ravishing actress Heather Spore was as Miss July.
The Zendozan is killed by Centauri, who explains that after this assassin will come hundreds more, and now Earth is directly in the battle. Alex chooses to return to join the fight (“Hero Reprise”).
We start the second act watching teenage hijynx on a beach and an Alex Double who simply can’t make sense of how he should treat Maggie (“Spring Break”). A second Zandozan shoots the android and he realizes he must return home to warn the Star League, stealing a truck to do so. He explains the situation to Maggie before destroying himself to stop the Zandozan from relaying the message that Alex has become a Starfighter.
Maggie, scared for Alex and knowing he is her true love, sings of her feelings for him, while Alex sings of his feelings for her many light-years away (“Reach Out”).
In a spectacularly staged (considering the props and lights available) battle, Alex and Centauri take on the approaching forces and destroy them, while all the cast sing of the battle (“Caves of the Heart (The Battle)”). Zur is destroyed, although some of his disciples escape.
Back at the trailer park, the residents assemble towards a bright light, from whence comes Alex and Centauri to tell them of their battle and for Alex to both declare his love for Maggie and to bring her back with him to the stars, an offer she happily accepts (“Finale”).
Hardcore followers of the original movie will notice a number of changes in the musical that diverge from what they might expect. Grig, previously Alex’s close companion on the ship, is now merely Centauri’s brother and quickly disabled in the battle. The Death Blossom, which was once untested and dangerous to the ship, is but a smart bomb and a second, more devastating weapon might be fatal to Alex and Centauri as they use it for the first time. Most of these changes make sense, as they allow Centauri to have a more complete presence in several song numbers, and they allow additional pacing in the battle and other sequences.
For these changes, other important details stay in; the video game still blares out “Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited…” and the last words of the Ko-Dan empire remain the immortal “What do we do now?” “We die.”
It is difficult to describe the feelings as one sits through this production. For vital minutes at the beginning of the show, your mind reels, over and over: “I am watching a musical production of The Last Starfighter. I am watching a musical production of The Last Starfighter”. This said, however, I found my half-smirk and wide eyes quickly overcome with the poignant, powerful song sung by Zur to his estranged parent, “Father to Son”. It speaks of his rightful place, his hereditary throne denied him, his pain at being left in the cold and lost without meaning, which is why he now intends to destroy the very world he was rejected from. It is strong. It is touching. It is, at the end, a very real song delivered by a very real performer.
So too, the three weathered but smiling ladies who sing to the young Maggie in “Love is Like Water”. Their voices circle each other, dancing among the playful rhymes and naughty asides. As they speak of love’s power, so too does Maggie, her head resting in a caring lap, learn the wisdom of the generations before her.
Two other numbers stand out.
“Reach Out”, the song of two lovers who wish for each other’s hearts across a galaxy, is what one expects it to be: moving, caring, and sung with grace. “Caves of the Heart (The Battle)” both accurately evokes the feelings of the original film’s fight sequences but brings its own special quality as cast members sing along of the war being waged from both sides.
This is not to say there aren’t a dozen other moments that spoke out to me. Certainly, “A Hero”‘s evoking of “little teacher named Scopes” and many other historical names was special, as well as the clever echoing in ‘Spring Break” as the Beta android mimics Blake’s sleazy lines to his girl. Lyricist/Musician Skip Kennon, who has a good list of credits to his name (he wrote music for The Hunchback of Notre Dame Part II, and before you snicker, Disney doesn’t generally hire hacks), has peppered the score with many clever themes (“Go Alex, Go Alex” is repeated in many situations) and at no point do you feel cheated or that there is any lack of effort in the music or performing.
And this is the magic of this event, of my driving from Boston to New York City and back in one day, to be there to witness the performance. I was a part of something, a time when my geekdom and fandom broke new ground, proud ground, something I will carry forever.
While waiting for the doors to open, I struck up a conversation with another attendee. We discussed where we had come from to see it. I was proud I’d just driven 150 miles to attend.
He had flown in from Denver.
For the day.
To see this musical.
Sometimes, we think we have achieved the pinnacle, and then, slowly, we glance upward and see we have even farther to climb.
Update: The soundtrack of this musical is now available.
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