Book: José Fernandez
Music: Steve Margoshes
Lyrics: Jacques Levy
Director: Nick Winston
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
‘You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying…’ To a generation raised on instant celebrity and The X Factor, these words must ring hollow, but Fame the Musical, based on Alan Parker’s 1980 film, Fame, shows that there is a cost to be paid and that sometimes that cost is just too much to bear.
It’s a predictable format: a group of precociously talented teens audition for and gain entrance to ‘the PA’, their affectionate name for the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. But this is only the beginning of their dreams. Over the next few years, they learn about themselves and each other as each pays his or her own dues. Along the way, there are mis-steps and couplings and at least one student will find the cost too high. Meanwhile, the staff look out for the students, trying to ensure the balance between an academic grounding and success in show business is maintained – and sometimes finding that balance hard to find.
And so we meet some fairly stock characters: Joe, the loud joker; Tyrone, the brilliant dancer from the wrong side of the tracks who struggles academically; Iris, the ballet protégée; Stanislavski-quoting Nick the actor, intensely focused on his craft; Serena, the shy actor; Mabel, the dancer struggling to keep her weight in check; Carmen, the brash, self-confident Latina dancer; and others too. Each has his or her own demons to fight, each will find his or her own path. We also meet the staff: firm but fair, the caring, homeroom teacher Miss Sherman; the enthusiastic dance teacher who spots Tyrone’s potential, Miss Bell; and the paternalistic acting teacher, Mr Myers.
Morgan Large’s layered set comprises yearbook photos that include the cast, with bright neon strips giving that 80s vibe. Furniture and props are slickly moved on and off as the action moves around the PA and outside. It provides a great backdrop to the set-piece musical numbers, including, of course, the iconic Fame, sung by Stephanie Rojas’ Carmen: those numbers, choreographed by director Nick Winston, are often spectacular affairs, filling the stage with life and energy.
And there’s at least one showstopper as Mica Paris as Miss Sherman belts out These Are My Children.
Of course, there is light and shade and some numbers are more introspective as characters explore their own emotions and needs.
Confident direction from Winston maintains pace and flow to the whole, so the time passes by almost unnoticed. But somehow, amongst the pizazz, there’s something missing. The cast comprises energetic and talented singers and dancers, the staging is spectacular, but, despite the urgings of Cameron Johnson’s Mr Myers to understand our own selves and emotions, somehow the characters remain superficial; as an audience, we don’t emotionally invest in them. The first half, especially, concentrates on style over substance and while the dramatic intensity steps up after the interval, we still don’t feel for these kids’ trials, tribulations and successes. That’s not to say that the cast doesn’t work hard – they do – and there are some lovely moments as characters discover or share something about themselves, but somehow we don’t really care. Maybe it’s because there are so many characters with so many, fairly obvious, needs that none gets sufficient time to be developed thoroughly or to share a backstory fully enough. Jamal Crawford is in good form as dancer Tyrone and goes some way to show his insecurities about his academic prowess. Stephanie Rojas’ Carmen is probably the most complex character, showing the lengths to which she will go to be the centre of attention: Rojas’ Carmen is driven to succeed so that her eventual fate is no surprise. The budding romance between Keith Jack’s Nick and Molly McGuire’s Serena is sweetly demonstrated. Other characters – the overweight dancer, the drumming rock-chick, the class clown, for example, are drawn with much larger brushstrokes.
So as an insight into the world of show business, Fame the Musical doesn’t quite cut it. Even so, it’s a loud and entertaining night full of spectacle and glitter, likely to leave the audience smiling and humming the theme tune on its journeys home.
Runs Until 24 November 2018 and on tour | Image: Tristram Kenton