In the 1980's, Alan Parker's movie Fame turned the New York High School for Performing Arts into an icon for aspiring singers, dancers and actors. It proved inspirational for youngsters all over the world, not least in the UK, where Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts followed its lead. With its dynamic New York setting and the kids springing into song and dance at the most unlikely moments both in and out of the school, the movie conveyed the pure joie de vivre of performing. The moral (if there was one) seemed to be that aspiration, motivation, and hard work could turn the most unsuitable students into headline toppers.
Many years later, David de Silva, whose concept this was, turned the movie into a fully fledged stage musical which has been running in and out of the West End for years.
The latest touring incarnation, tightly directed and choreographed by Karen Bruce, manages to capture some of this joie de vivre, although the grey set lacks the essential multi-colour diversity of NYC. This is not a great musical by any means. The plot is minimal, with the students forming attachments on a revolving door basis, an over-simplistic clash of ethnic backgrounds and a stab at social realism with a drug-related death. There's little room for character development.
The rock-based score (music, Steve Margoshes, lyrics, Jaques Levy) driven by an excellent band (musical director, Steve Hill) is pleasant enough, although a lyric which rhymes 'Lion in Winter' with 'Harold Pinter', will give you some idea of the intellectual level of the writing.
The show scores, however, in its performance. Forget the clichés, and try to put out of your mind echoes of Chorus Line, Grease and a dozen other predecessors from which this material is clearly derived and just immerse yourself in the sizzling routines, as a cast of 20 sing and dance their hearts out as if there was no tomorrow.
Outstanding among them is Chris Copeland as the illiterate black kid from the ghetto whose numbers (particularly "Dancin' on the Sidewalk") are absolute show-stoppers. With more chips on both shoulders than would fill a fat fryer, Copeland expresses joy, anger, and the whole gamut of emotions in his dance. He is classically trained, and it shows.
It would be unfair to say that he outperforms the rest of the superb company because this is not so. Ben Heathcote as an aspiring stand-up comic, Leigh-Anne Stone as an overweight dancer turned actress, and Debbie Kurup as the sexy, slinky vamp, whose dance brilliance is ruined by an overdose of ambition and drugs, all have their moments too. Leading the title number as a finale, Kurup brings the audience to its feet. And the entire company sing and dance with a commitment that would shame some performers of much greater experience.
- Stephen Gilchrist