The Last Starfighter: The Musical | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn

          

The Last Starfighter: The Musical

This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, October 18, 2004.
B+

The Last Starfighter is a new off-Broadway musical based on the 1984 film. It opens at the Starlite Starbrite, an idyllic little trailer park in rural California—idyllic, that is, to all its residents but Alex Rogan (Charlie Pollock). Alex’s mother manages the trailer park and moonlights as a waitress, which makes Alex the de facto handyman. He spends his days battling an endless succession of blown fuses, leaky pipes, and clogged toilets, never finishing in time to join his girlfriend Maggie (Julia Motyka) for summer fun at the nearby lakeshore. Worse, his loan application for college has just been turned down, crushing his dreams of ever escaping to a better life.

All this changes one evening when Alex breaks the high score on Starfighter, an arcade game next to the trailer park office. A fast-talking stranger named Centauri (Joseph Kolinski) soon shows up, claiming to be the inventor of Starfighter. He convinces Alex to leave with him, for what Alex assumes will be a video-game endorsement deal. Instead Centauri’s car turns out to be a spaceship, and Centauri a scaly alien creature. Before he knows it, Alex has been whisked away through hyperspace to the planet Rylos. Here he is greeted as a gifted Starfighter and recruited into an interstellar war against the tyrant Zur (Bernardo De Paula) that threatens not just the worlds of the Star League, but Earth as well.

Even as Alex protests his conscription, his place on Earth is filled by a beta unit—a robot double programmed by Centauri to decoy Zur’s Zandozan assassin (Paul Jackel) away from the real Alex. The hapless beta unit struggles against the Zandozan while at the same time trying to keep Alex’s job and not ruin things with Maggie. And Alex himself, fighting feelings of inadequacy, must at last decide whether to retreat to the cold safety of home, or take his rightful place in battle as the last Starfighter.

Putting the “opera” back in space

Even my wife, who fell asleep during the movie, cheered at the end of the play’s climactic space battle. This one’s a real crowd pleaser.

Even to its ardent defenders, the movie version of The Last Starfighter has always played like a low-rent version of Star Wars, with a thinner, more maudlin story, inferior special effects, and a production design no more convincing than the original Star Trek’s. The genius of this new adaptation lies its recognition that these apparent weaknesses are really strengths when translated to the musical stage. It’s easier, for instance, to accept that all the trailer park’s residents will show up to cheer a kid playing an arcade game when they’re singing a musical number than otherwise.

The book by Fred Landau retains a good deal of dialog from the movie while streamlining the story in ways that improve upon the original. What’s more, most of the supporting players are given fine moments in which to shine, the best being “Zandozan,” the showstopping Act One finale in which Alex’s younger brother Louis (Travis Walters) bawdily recounts the story of how his nighttime dreams were interrupted by an assassin from outer space.

Director Peter Dobbins takes full advantage of his enthusiastic cast, spare sets, and limited props to created a world where classic Broadway and space opera collide. A delirious array of aliens are suggested using no more than gloves, headgear, and jumpsuits. Skillful lighting and sound effects combine to evoke everything from the illusion of a fiery car crash to spaceships flying at high speeds through a field of stars. And most of the songs by Skip Kennon can hold their own with anything playing around the corner on Broadway.

At nearly two hours, the show does bog down in a few spots, and is not without other problems. Charlie Pollock at times plays Alex with more swagger than seems appropriate, and Joseph Kolinski’s relatively tame Centauri can’t equal the snake-oily smarm Robert Preston brought to the role on screen. But overall, charming, energetic performances and genuinely thrilling staging make this an evening at the theater that gives ”star power” a whole new meaning.  

The Last Starfighter: A New Musical
Music and Lyrics by Skip Kennon
Book by Fred Landau
Based upon the Screenplay by Jonathan Betuel
Directed by Peter Dobbins
Choreography and Musical Staging by Jennifer Paulson Lee
The Storm Theatre
145 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
October 15th - October 30th
Tickets: $19.00
(212) 730-3960

Featured Book

An Alternate History of the 21st Century: Stories by William Shunn
Proper Manuscript Format by William Shunn