Book: Jose Fernandez
Lyrics: Jacques Levy
Music: Steve Margoshes
Director: Nick Winston
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
These days we’ve become inured to successful movies being turned into stage plays and musicals, often keeping as close as possible to the source material in the hope of retaining the original’s audience.
Fame is slightly different. When it debuted on Broadway in 1988, none of the characters from either Alan Parker’s 1980 film or the phenomenally successful follow-up TV series remained. In their place were some facsimile archetypes that shared characteristics of beloved characters, but devoid of any residual emotional attachment.
What remains is the general structure: following a group of students at the ‘PA’, the New York High School of Performing Arts, over the course of four years from first audition to graduation.
What stymies any production of Fame is that the show attempts to tell so many stories over its running time that each ends up being superficial. From cross-class romances, to eating disorders, undiagnosed dyslexia and drug abuse, there are issues aplenty being put in the spotlight: but none ever really stays there long enough to work.
Nick Winston’s directing of Jose Fernandez’s book moments does not help in this regard. Despite onstage discussions about the need for reality in acting, all such moments are played out with elaborate overstatement, further reducing the efficacy of the issues-driven plotlines.
And while the songs (by Steve Margoshes and Jacques Levy) rarely rise to the level of those made famous by the film and TV series – when the iconic theme song bursts in, it feels like a high-energy intruder – Winston and his ensemble do succeed in bringing them to life as much as possible.
Particularly impressive are Simon Anthony’s Schlomo and Stephanie Rojas as Carmen, the latter of whom gets the meatiest – if corniest – rags-to-riches-to-rags storyline. Despite the predictability of the plot, Rojas wrings so much out of her role that it increases one’s opinion of the whole ensemble, to a point where it’s clear they are of higher quality than the material.
Elsewhere, Jamal Kane Crawford and Jorgie Porter impress with their mismatched balletic styles. Indeed, Winston’s choreography, from featured roles to precise ensemble work, works well throughout, justifying this touring musical’s visit to Sadler’s Wells’ West End home.
But the standout moment goes to Mica Paris as English teacher Miss Sherman. While her spoken dialogue moments, like much of the rest of the script, are little more than one high school melodrama cliché after another, her performance of These Are My Children – a powerful hymn to the vocation of teaching – justifiably brings the house down.
That number is complemented perfectly by Morgan Large’s set, a backdrop of actors’ headshots that, together with Prema Mehta’s neon-infused lighting design, enhances the action taking place in front of it. Nods to the use of New York cabs – a sequence lifted from the original film and replicated in the original Broadway production – fare less well when they are reduced to toy cars on poles, which distract the eye and diminish the power of the musical’s closing number.
But despite small missteps like that, this production of Fame does its best to conquer the limitations of trying to tell multiple, dated stories, set over four years, and cramming them into two and a half hours of song and dance. It may not succeed in overcoming the play’s inherent flaws, but it does at least have fun trying.
Continues until 19 October 2019 | Image: Tristram Kenton