Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fame - some beautiful moments of song and dance in this 30th Anniversary production (Grand Opera House until Saturday 24 August)

Bruno, the keyboard player, was my hero in the TV series of Fame that followed on from the 1980 Alan Parker film. I used to audio tape episodes and then listen back to them. (No VCR in our house in those days.) My emotional anchor is missing from the stage version which has now been (mostly) in and out of theatres for 30 years. Also missing are most of the classic songs from that era which still haunt my iPod playlists. But all is not lost …

The musical version of Fame knowingly follows on from the film (and even references it) with the new intake of students in 1982 warned that it’s not going to be all about dancing on top of cars on 42nd Street! Three stories from dance, music and theatre majors are woven together as classical forms once again tussle against modern expression.

Tyrone (Jamal Kane Crawford) faces up to the illiteracy that undermines his grades; Carmen’s drug misuse (Stephanie Rojas) and quest for “instance fame” (still apt in this Instagram generation) threaten her progress; and Serena (Molly McGuire) and Nick (Keith Jack) struggle to find their true selves in the scenes they must act out. Throw in “seafood diet” Mabel (Hayley Johnston), ribald Joe (Morgan Jackson covering for Albey Brookes) with his comedy codpiece, and insecure but so delicately graceful Iris (Jorgie Porter), and you have quite a cast.

The feeling of live performance is  enhanced by three cast members (Tom Mussell, Alexander Zane and Louisa Beadel) who prove they can act, dance, sing and also play saxophone, trumpet and drums/aggressive triangle/soprano saxophone on stage. Dance-wise, the choreography seems to have lost most of the iconic splits in the middle of the air (and a lot of the legwarmers), but last night the talented cast kept up the energy even when some of the lights failed throughout Act Two and left more then a few faces in the shade.

With so much story to knit together, there are a lot of snatched scenes before the interval, with some painfully-truncated ballroom dancing between Iris and Tyrone that seemed to promise to much more before being snatched away, and a quick verse from Schlomo (Simon Anthony) and Carmen whose voices deserved a lot more exposure. After the break, Mabel’s Prayer is a treat, and Mica Paris’ soul talent is showcased (playing Miss Sherman, the strict English teacher) with a powerful These Are My Children, finally hinting at the show’s real potential. Paris and Rojas also rock the finale reprise of the title song like a battle round on The Voice (they’d both go through).

Morgan Large’s very effective set deserves special mention: tiled walls of yearbook pictures of past students (including some of the current cast) combined with Prema Mehta’s lighting design provides an interesting and flexible backdrop to the drama (though its VU Meter mode could be a little more realistic).

Emotionally, it was only ten minutes from the end when director Nick Winston had pulled together all the character arcs and Schlomo stepped behind his faux piano to pay tribute to Carmen that the show finally got its hooks into me. That’s a function of the rather tame tunes and thinly drawn characters in the book and lyrics rather than any fault of the cast.

In fact, compared with the limp and lacklustre Saturday matinee production of Fame I saw in London’s West End many, many years ago, this 30th Anniversary Tour version is in a different league. This cast work well as an ensemble and squeeze as much life out of the source material as is possible. If only it didn’t make me think back so much more fondly to the original and wistfully “remember, remember, remember”.

Pull on your legwarmers and “tell me what you see” if you head down to the Grand Opera House this week to catch Fame before the students pack up their lockers on Saturday 24 August and head to Bournemouth next week.

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