Book: Jose Fernandez
Music: Steve Margoshes
Lyrics: Jacques Levy
Director: Nick Winston
2020 has solidified one particularly nasty fact concerning the arts industry – its fickleness. A career in this industry is far from a secure path, where the merriments and passion for creativity are always at the mercy of financial strain, competition, and continuing inadequacies of representation. Looking to the future, the prospect of studying arts and entering the industry has never been quite as unpredictable. Adapted from the film of the same name, Fame: The Musical attempts to look into the underbelly of class, race, and poverty in the arts, but let’s face it – Fame is horrifically outdated.
Seemingly riding on a free pass as a “classic”, Nick Winston’s 30th-anniversary production fails to understand the necessity of pursuing excellence in a dated production. A show which has done the rounds and has little chance of altering the old script has to commit to every moment and make them shine. Fame never left the eighties, and where other productions of a similar ilk continue to either adapt or challenge themselves, Fame trundles along at a slowing pace, watering itself down, utilising the same energy it’s been banking on for thirty years.
What struggles most is the writing, which was never stellar to start with, as it limits many of the performers. With a smorgasbord of relationships, turmoil, and branching narratives, the school dynamic (if anything) hinders the story. Pursuits for chemistry seem largely fruitless as the cast aren’t able to spend enough time together for an authentic relationship to form, and the duets tend to have weaker lyrics than the solo performances.
For a production which centres itself in the creative cauldron of tomorrow, the choreography may be averaging Bs, but the singing and acting is likely to re-sit the final exam. Capable vocalists and dancers find themselves hampered by the numbing humour which falls flat, but not as flat as some of the vocals – save for powerhouses like Hayley Johnston or Jamal Crawford who are adept in carrying their character as well as a note.
And lord helps them, Johnston is by far one of the principal performers. With a terrific physicality to the comedy and a clear diction behind her voice, it’s just a shame that the entire existence of Mabel is one big fat joke. What’s worse, in an industry which violates people’s self-worth, the gags at Mabel’s weight aren’t even satirical – they aren’t a commentary on the outlandish abuses dancers put their bodies through to achieve an ‘ideal’ weight. They’re just cheap, washed out gags, and worst of all? They aren’t even funny.
Then it happens. As with Johnston, an underwritten and under-utilised character has a breaking moment: A performance that keeps Fame from bowing out. Mica Paris has thus far been waiting, biding her time as Miss Sherman, the homework teacher. Pernickety, stern but fair, the character has little association to the story until the second act where Paris’ rendition of These Are My Children demonstrates the difficulties of the education sector and is deservedly the belting audience-pleaser of the evening.
If you’re not bringing anything fresh to the production, ensure that in delivering musical theatre to new audiences that it’s at the top of its game. Fame isn’t even top of the class. The move to the digital format highlights errors in the anniversary production’s direction and flow, amplifying them with unnecessary close-ups and edits. Save for stand-out performances from Johnston, Paris, and Crawford, The Shows Must Go Online’s most recent addition to bringing theatre to the masses is likely to flunk at the back of the class.
Available here until 27 September 2020