NYMF The Last Starfighter: The Hoedown Armada

The movie The Last Starfighter has always been a guilty pleasure for me (okay, when I was a kid it was just a pleasure), so when I heard there was a musical version, I was very intrigued to see what had been done.  It's a significant movie in several ways- it was Robert Preston's last film, and it was the first movie to have the majority of its special effects done with CGI.  The musical cannily goes much lower-tech, since it's really the human story that matters the most.

The plot: Alex Rogan (Danny Binstock), a young man who lives in a trailer park called "Starlite Starbrite" with his mother (Adina Alexander) and younger brother Louis (Patrick O. Henney).  Alex has big dreams of going away to college and making something of himself, but when his college loan doesn't come through, his main accomplishment is breaking the high score on "Starfighter", the only video game in the trailer park, which exhorts Alex to battle "Zur and the Kodan Armada".  Enter Centauri (Joseph Kolinski), who informs Alex that he invented the Starfighter game, and hearing about Alex's high score, has a business proposition for him.  Alex gets into Centauri's car, which promptly turns into a spaceship and brings them to Rylos, the actual planet in the videogame, which turns out to be less and less fictional, the more Alex hears.  He discovers that Centauri made a tidy profit over delivering Alex, and then witnesses a holographic conversation between Enduran, leader of the good guys (Tom Treadwell), and his son Zur (Ryan Jesse), leader of the bad guys, during which Zur kills one of Enduran's spies. Alex is naturally freaked out and demands to be returned home to Earth.  Meanwhile, Centauri has sent a "beta unit", an android (sometimes Jonathan Richard Sandler), to fill Alex's shoes back on Earth, and he's messing things up both with Alex's handyman job and with Maggie (Nora Blackall), Alex's girlfriend.  Alex is returned to the trailer park, where Centauri gives him a device to call him if he changes his mind.  Alex meets his double, who informs him that an alien assassin, a Zandozan (Jesse JP Johnson) has come to kill Alex, since he was seen among the other Starfighters. Alex and the Beta Unit battle the Zandozan, Alex calls Centauri who comes to the rescue, and they kill the Zandozan, Centauri getting wounded in the process.  Alex and Centauri return to Rylos, where they discover Zur has killed all the other Starfighters, and Alex is the only one with any skills, and Centauri offers to go with him as navigator.  Meanwhile, Beta Unit is trying to keep things going with Maggie, on a Spring Break trip to the lake; by eying other teens, he's mostly able to keep things up until he scents another Zandozan, who shoots him, revealing to Maggie and the Zandozan that "Alex" is actually a droid.  The Zandozan rushes to inform Zur, but the Beta Unit sacrifices himself to stop the message transmission.  Zur only gets "The Last Starfighter is…", assumes the rest of the message is "…dead", and celebrates until Alex and Centauri come and kick their asses.  Alex returns to Earth, but not to stay- only to get Maggie and bring her off into space with him.  She goes with him after some dithering and the trailer park becomes a tourist attraction.  

This is one of the main conceits of the musical- at the end of the movie Otis has a line about how the trailer park is going to be famous as the place where Alex and Maggie left for the stars- in the musical it already has become so, and the trailer park residents are performing the show to tell the story to we audience members (who apparently just got off a tour bus), with Otis (Don Mayo) as narrator.  It's a cute idea, as the trailer parkers take on the roles of aliens in their homemade costumes, and play "rock, paper, scissors" to see who gets to play the Zandozan this time.  The effect is sort of a more sci-fi Red, White, and Blaine (the tongue-in-cheek costumes by Mark Richard Caswell are very amusing, both for the aliens and the 1980s trailer park).

Fred Landau's changes to the story mainly strengthen it, though getting rid of Centauri's Obi-Wan Kenobian middle-of-the-movie death leaves Grig with little to do as Centauri assumes his role in the story as Alex's navigator, though it strengthens Centauri's character and gives him an emotional arc as he puts away his conman ways to support Alex (though why Centauri is still wounded by the Zandozan is confusing).  Fortunately Grig = Otis, who has a much larger role.

Skip Kennon's music and lyrics are good, and appropriately stuck in the 1980s.  Highlights are Otis' chromatic "Things Change", Alex's wish-song "Somebody Who Goes Somewhere And Does Something", the teen-movie-pastiche "Spring Break", and Louis' show-stopping soft-shoe "Zandozan".  "Love is Like Water", sung by Alex's mom, Maggie, Maggie's Granny (Janet Carroll, who is certainly not old enough to be a grandmother), and Elaine (Mary Ellen Ashley), is a strange number, unsure whether to be a ribald comic tune with watery double entendres or a ballad about the vagaries of love.  Centauri's "To Be a Hero" is appropriately sappy.

All of the music is synthesized, which is appropriate at times, though perhaps a misstep for a story that intends to show the humanity of the characters.  One of the thrilling moments of the original movie was hearing the tinny videogame music translated into the movie's score.  And the midi sound of the banjo hoedown leitmotif that accompanied the frame story was somewhat grating.  The music also was pre-recorded (no musicians were listed in the program), which seemed to rob it of humanity as well- the volume was a bit low the night I saw it, which brought the energy down (though I understand a few of the NYMF shows are having sound issues, and I was there opening night).

The cast is great- Danny Binstock is perfect as Alex and hilarious as the Beta Unit.  Ryan Jesse is great as Blake, Alex's earthbound nemesis, but doesn't summon up the petulant insanity required to pull Zur over the top where he needs to be- he's just not very frightening.  Adinah Alexander is touching as Alex's harried mother.  Joseph Kolinski is amusing as Centauri, though he doesn't have Robert Preston's magical charisma (though in his defense, who does?), he does a solid job in the role, especially in the more touching moments.

The supporting cast is great. I especially enjoyed Jonathan Richard Sandler, Natalie Hall, Lauren Marcus, and Jesse JP Johnson*.

It's odd- it seems at times that no one in the cast has actually seen the film, as many of the classic lines were thrown away.  While that's a valid choice, in that a) actors often stay away from seeing other actors in a role, wishing to create their character themselves, and b) in the frame story the trailer park denizens have only Alex's stories to go on in creating their roles, it's somewhat disappointing.  For a show based on a cult film, it seems the actors and director (Elizabeth Lucas) didn't honor the rabid fans who go in expecting certain things.

Still, the show was highly entertaining, and I'd certainly recommend it.

* who keeps threatening to get naked in "Spring Break", but sadly never does.  I was hoping for a quick butt-shot, at least.

The Last Starfighter
The Theater at St. Clements
423 W. 46th street (between ninth and tenth avenues)

Remaining performances:
Wednesday, Oct 3rd at 9:00 pm
Friday, Oct 5th at 1:00 pm
Friday, Oct 5th at 5:00 pm
Saturday, Oct 6th at 9:00 pm
Sunday, Oct 7th at 4:30 pm




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Duncan Pflaster is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced all over. He also has been known to direct, write music, play the ukulele, (read more...)