“Fame! I’m gonna live forever!” I think that’s how it goes. Only I’m not sure this musical should. I think it’s had its day. While, on paper, the themes are still topical, there’s something intangibly dated about it that can’t be overcome by sheer nostalgia. And the final indictment lies inasmuch as I think I enjoyed the pre-show ’80s classics piped through the PA as much as the show itself.
Pity. I was primed to enjoy. Which doesn’t mean, I don’t believe, my expectations were impossibly high. Like many people, my sum total knowledge of Fame, as a multimedia phenomenon, is the cinematic experience, on release, in 1980. As an excitable 20-year-old, the rebellious, self-determined tenacity and energy of the youths portrayed was inspiring. I’d just enough of the adolescent still in me to experience the spills, chills and thrills of their invigorated quests for identity and individuation. (Come to think of it, I still have.)
All the ingredients are pretty much in place. The set, while not a new wheel, functions well and looks the part of a grungy NYC school corridor. The wheel-in-and-out lockers and other props are spot-on. There’s the requisite Checker cab, in the finale (you have to wait all night for THE song, but you’re teased along the way); a large-format video backdrop; spectacular, state-of-the-art lighting (sometimes overdone, ironically, to a ’70s degree) by Trudy Dalgleish; superbly inventive musical arrangements by Dave Skelton, Daniel Edmonds and Sean Peter (‘though the keyboards are very heavy-handed, even by ’80s standards); reminiscent costume design by Janet Hine; punchy, athletic choreography, by director Kelley Abbey.
As well, there’s a great depth and diversity of fresh, young talent, bristling with healthily competitive urge. As with the original film, it’s conceived and developed by David de Silva, who sells it with almost Socratic eloquence in his programme notes. ‘To know oneself is a lifelong process. It helps us along the way if we recognise that life is theatre. There are many sides to the character we play in it. We’re always making our entrances and exits. Through the study and appreciation of the arts, we become better able to project our true selves, discover our uniqueness, design our space and channel our spirit. Thus, giving more meaning to our lives.’ Inspirational, no?
As is the real-life Fame school which inspired the Fame brand. Yes, brand. After all, Fame is now a bit like Toyota. Early on, there was a Corolla. Now there’s Camry. Kluger. You name it. Fame knows many media. One can’t help but feel, however, despite the creator’s fine words, Fame has become a bit of a default cashcow. it’s the poker-machine that gave at the box-office in 1980, and has given ever since.
Maybe it’s my fault, for having immediately preceded opening night with a new production of Wilde’s timeless The Importance Of Being Earnest. Perhaps that’s why Jose Fernandez’ book (except where he quotes the likes of Stanislavsky, or Whitman), especially in the first act, seems so lame, dull, lifeless and witless.
And not many of Jacques Levy and Steve Margoshes’ songs truly move, trouble or uplift (‘though there are notable exceptions, albeit very much ‘sold’ by quality of performance). In fact, that’s a large part of the problem, methinks. There’s a sense of cynical mimickry of musical structure: a romantic song here; a sad song there. it doesn’t ring true. I was seeing, but not really believing. Or feeling. Most of the time.
The big number wasn’t even written by them, but Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore. And, really, everything pivots around and anticipates that orgasm. Trouble is, there’s so much loosely-strung foreplay, I lost interest. So the moment I’d be waiting for seemed anti-climactic.
Veterans Andrew McFarlane (who gets a resident director credit, whatever that means) and Brain Wenzel, ironically, needed a firmer directorial hand. McFarlane’s drama teacher, Myers, particularly, was lacklustrous. Although his unco dancing at the end is almost worth the price of admission. Wenzel seemed miscast as the musically professorial Scheinkopf. The rest of the cast fell down, too, in the drama department, despite some redeeming moments of theatrical lucidity and, even, luminosity, from the likes of Broadway star Lillias White (as English mistress, Esther Sherman), Chris Durling (Nick Piazza), Kylie Fisher (Grace ‘Lambchops’ Lamb), Catherine Shepherd (Serena Katz), Rowena Vilar (Carmen Diaz), Sam Ludeman (Joe Vegas) and Rebecca Jackson Mendoza (Greta Bell).
Yes, you’re right: that’s quite a few cast-members. The frustrating and perplexing thing was the unevenness of dramatic performance, for the most part. It’s hard to laud any single individual for a throroughly convincing characterisation; ‘though ‘Lambchops’ may come close. Shepherd was also pretty solid. Vilar shone in her scene as the doomed, drug-addled streetwalker, especially when she broke into song. Tim Dashwood carried himself with appropriately geekish sensitivity, as the compassionate and sincere Schlomo Metzenbaum.
Singing and dancing was better, overall. This is a cast of great vocal individuality. And some of the dancing is quite exciting. Talia Fowler’s balletic Iris Kelly brought a kind of delicacy and sophistication to bear which wasn’t much evident otherwise. She’s the sort of dancer that could move you to tears.
Timomatic’s Tyrone Jackson showed how versatile this young man is: all-singing; all-dancing; the very quintessence of a streetwise, poppin’ brother. Dancin’ On The Sidewalk indulges Timomatic’s childhood adoration of Michael Jackson, in an unashamedly derivative, if enjoyable, number.
But it’s the opening of act two which is probably the most interesting, colourful, torrid and engaging excerpt amongt the up-tempo material: the so-called Argentine Tango, which is, broadly, a Latino take on the theme song, with some tasty flamenco flavour. Meanwhile, one of the best and most unassuming songs is Think Of Meryl Streep, sung by Serena.
Teachers Sherman and Bell have an argumentative sing-off, that threatens to tease a tingle around the nape of the neck: these girls could easily sustain a TKO against lesser competition, but each finds her match here. Their only rival is the gospel-blues belting of Josie Lane, in Mabel’s Prayer.
So, you see, there are moments, high points, yet, as a whole, it never seems to hit the mark. Perhaps because it seems too much a claculated pastiche, whereas, in Alan Parker’s original (film) it seemed we could see the blood, feel the sweat, cry the tears. Fame, The Musical, lacks that special something.
Curtain Call rating: B-