By R. W. APPLE JR.MARCH 29, 1984

After weeks of ballyhoo and a reported expenditure of more than $2 million on the sets alone, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Starlight Express, opened Tuesday night to decidedly mixed notices.

All of the major critics expressed admiration, even awe, for the costly, innovative transformation of the Apollo Victoria Theater for the show, directed by Trevor Nunn, Mr. Lloyd Webber's frequent collaborator. A typical reaction was that of John Barber in The Daily Telegraph: "As spectacle, overwhelming. As engineering, phenomenal. But this is only playing trains on a gargantuan scale."

The play is about trains. It is a parable of a sort, about a steam engine, initially discouraged by the advent of flashier and more powerful diesel and electric competitors, that takes heart and finally emerges victorious. Actors on roller skates play the locomotives.

Play Thought to Lack 'Heart'

Starlight Express follows a string of Lloyd Webber hits, most of which have been as successful on Broadway as in the West End: Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Evita (1976), Cats (1981). Most of the critics thought it decidedly inferior to Cats, and most thought its biggest problem was that it lacked "heart."

In this morning's Guardian, Michael Billington described the musical as "a theatrical 'Star Wars,' in which the human element is constantly struggling to get out." Mr. Billington said too many of the musical numbers, "sharply rhymed though they are, seem to me swamped by Trevor Nunn's busy production and by the pounding disco orchestration."

"Not since Lionel Bart's 'Blitz,'" he added, "has London seen a musical where the technology so totally dwarfed the minuscule content. It reminds one that the musical is about heart as well as art, about people rather than effects, about the joy of human contact."

John Napier, the designer, has fashioned for Starlight Express a looping, swooping track that surrounds the auditorium. The actors roller-skate around it, simulating the competition between three locomotives - steam, diesel and electric - that forms the climax of the action. There are small video screens so that the audience can watch the race when the skaters disappear behind their backs, and there are miniature trains shuttling back and forth overhead.

Half of Seating Ripped Out

In order to fit in all the gear, Irving Wardle of The Times reported, a good half of the theater's seating capacity has been ripped out. He expressed skepticism as to whether American producers would be willing to make such a sacrifice if Starlight Express reaches Broadway. No plans for a New York production have been announced.

Another complaint was the lack of a convincing book. Michael Coveney of The Financial Times, who admired the musical's vitality and especially Mr. Nunn's incorporation into its physical language the "robotic body - popping that you see black kids performing on street corners in both London and New York," criticized what he described as the preachiness and the lack of resolution in the second act.

After a strong start, he wrote, the play's theme "disappointingly unravels as a Thatcherite message of self - improvement, finding what you have within you and jolly well pulling yourself together."

As for the lyrics, by Richard Stilgoe, Mr. Coveney found them "now witty, now anodyne, but they are no worse than anything written by Tim Rice," Mr. Lloyd Webber's partner in several earlier shows.

Choreography Wins Applause

The choreography of Arlene Phillips, who gets her skating actors into all sorts of vertiginous attitudes, won general applause, although Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail, who liked most of what he saw, didn't like her work very much.

Mr. Lloyd Webber's music was praised mainly for its rhythmic content; some of it reminded more than one listener of the boogie-woogie piano blues of Meade Lux Lewis in the 1930's.

Most of the first-nighters voted for Only He, sung by Stephanie Lawrence, as the song most likely to emerge as the musical's hit.

The three locomotives are impersonated by Jeff Shankley (Diesel), Jeffrey Daniels (Electric) and Ray Shell (Steam). Lon Satton is the voice of Starlight Express, a kind of spiritual cloud that descends on and reinvigorates Steam, who is also known as Rusty. Frances Ruffelle, as an uncoupled freight car, impressed many with her torch singing.

A version of this review appears in print on March 29, 1984, on Page C00018 of the National edition with the headline: LLOYD WEBBER MUSICAL OPENS.

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