New York's School for the Performing Arts must be suffering from some kind of talent shortage this semester. That's what you'd think, anyway, having witnessed the students in Fame the Musical. They're an uninspiring bunch, who often look lumpish in the dancing department, off-key in singing, and decidedly wooden when it comes to drama.
Still, these are small crimes compared with those perpetrated by the creators of this misbegotten show. If anyone deserves to flunk out, its these guys, for dreaming up the collection of dim-witted songs and lycra-thin plot lines in the first place.
The shame, is that Fame, the movie, wasn't half bad. Alan Parker deftly explored the hopes, fears, and ambitions of a bunch of kids out to make it in the hardest profession in the world, Irene Cara trilled her way through some good-ish songs and the whole school rounded the story off with the feelgood anthem called "I Sing the Body Electric".
Not a lot of that has survived in Howard da Silva's movie-to-musical incarnation, although book writer, Jose Fernandez, has borrowed some elements from the original screenplay. The unlikely relationship between a young black dancer from the ghettos (Adrian Hansel) and a WASP ballet student (Rebecca Reaney) is still there, as is the on-off romance between a couple of drippy young thesps (Andrew Langtree and Kimberley Partridge). Fernandez has interpolated some dreadful scenes of his own, including a performance of Romeo and Juliet, which aims at comedy, but is tragically unfunny; and a scene where the company trips on in clown costumes and performs some dull magic tricks.
The new tunes, written by Jacques Levy and Steve Margoshes, are distinctly bottom drawer (which makes you grateful that someone had the sense to keep the bouncy title number from the film). These are either blunt to the point of crassness ("Can't Keep It Down"), or so syrupy they wouldn't look out of place in a Tate and Lyle factory ("Let's Play a Love Scene"). As for Lars Bethke's choreography, well that probably seemed fresh in the 1980s when body popping was all the rage, but now it simply looks dated.
It's a relief, then, that into the gloom steps one of the teachers, the fearsome battleaxe, Miss Sherman (Michelle Dixon>). She upstages the kids with an Aretha Franklin-style number called "These are my Children", delivering it with such verve and panache, the audience can't help but reward her with the biggest hand of this otherwise dull evening.
Note: The following review dates from Fame the Musical's 1997/1998 run at the Victoria Palace Theatre.
Few musicals have their origins in a film; fewer still in a film and a television series. Such though is the case with Fame.
In case you've never seen the Alan Parker film or TV spin-off, Fame the Musical is a noisy, let's-do-the-performing-arts-school-right-here show set in a school for teenaged actors, singers and musicians in New York. Insiders will appreciate the knowing reference early in the first half to the show's origins, when a teacher warns her class of new recruits: “Don't expect to go dancin' through the streets on cars.”
This production is an opportunity for an energetic cast of young UK performers to show their mettle, not only their ability to sing and dance, but to rise to the ultimate Brit thespian challenge of 'doing' a convincing American accent.
There's a talented cast - especially Leon Maurice Jones as Tyrone - but the piece itself has shortcomings. The romantic formula of classic ensemble musicals is focus on no more than two 'serious' couples and one ill-assorted duo for comic relief. The stage version of Fame, though, attempts to stage something that has more in common with the conventions of the television soap. The result a narratively bitty first half as the show tries to develop multiple romantic storylines - along with sundry other plot lines concerning teacher-vs-teacher, staff-room rivalry and a dancer with a weight problem.
Songwise, the show's not terribly well served either. Breaking with the classic formula again, where the love interest is propelled through romantic duets, Fame the Musical has just one - not counting a sexy pas de deux (Maurice-Jones and Rebecca Reaney as Iris) - and that not until the second to last number of the show.
“Let's Play a Love Scene” is a nice song, and “Dancin' On the Sidewalk” is a great dance number, but they don't stand much of a chance against the massive familiarity of the title number - “Fame: I want to live furr-ever!” - whose energetic performance early in the show obscures the dark message that the singer is so driven by ambition, that she's hoofing her way to a tragic end.
Verdict: If you liked the film or television series, you'll love seeing young performers doing the jumping around for real, though the show only really takes off for its final three songs.
And they do get to dance on the roof of a car after all.
Roger Green, November 1997