David De Silva
Selladoor Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, Dan Looney and Adam Paulden, Stephen McGill, Productions and Jason Haigh-Ellery
Ever since Alan Parker’s Fame hit the screens in 1980, soon followed by the legendary TV series, the image of dancers with legs wrapped around their ears in multi-coloured leg warmers jumping onto taxi cabs to the pumping track of “Fame” is etched into '80s pop culture. It was pretty hard not to be totally seduced, speaking as a kid from the '80s.
Yet the stage version, limited by access rights to the original material, especially evident in the choice of musical numbers, doesn't hit the chord in quite the same way. For those living under a rock these past few decades, or too young to know, Fame follows a group of young, aspiring performers attending New York’s High School for Performing Arts, charting their student days.
The basic storyline is wrapped around the rise and fall of Carmen Diaz, a brilliantly talented student who dreams of stardom but, too impatient to wait for the real deal, is lured from stage school to LA, spiralling into drugs, marking her eventual demise. The plots hangs on Carmen alongside her friends, three couples that grow through school ranks from arrival to graduation.
As well as the predictable ups and downs that come with trying to make it big in the cut-throat world of showbiz, there’s also a barrel of teenage issues thrust upon us from eating disorders, burgeoning sexuality, racial discrimination, especially in the dance world, to drug abuse. After all, “Fame costs” and you don’t get there without “sweat”.
Acting is mostly light of touch, verging intentionally on the pastiche, but dramatic stakes are raised in the form of Carmen, a tightly wound ball of energy who thrusts herself at the audience as if her very life depends on it, most evident in her heartbreakingly emotive song "In LA". Stephanie Rojas plays Carmen with credible commitment, standing tall amongst the comic characterisations set up for most of the cast.
There are also standout performances from Jamal Kane Crawford, a shiny, smiling Tyrone, who jetés his way around his academic teachers, defying the need to read when he can high-kick the hell out of any debate, while Mable, (Hayley Johnston) puts in an endearingly sappy portrayal of dancer turns actress due to her passion for food and the good life.
Singer Mica Paris is a strong stage presence as Miss Sherman. She brings tough love to her role as educator and part-saviour, belting out awe-inspiring vocals in a voice reserved for the angels for the number "These Are My Children", raising the audience to their feet in sheer admiration.
But for the main, the wholeheartedly enthusiastic cast, literally raring to go, are given a hard job selling the lyrics, music and flimsy storyline, especially when we know the original film score is so totally fabulous.
It's the choreography from Nick Winston that comes to the rescue, working best when he engages the whole cast in the big showstopper numbers, particularly towards the end where the audience are all, without fail, up on their feet in infectious party atmosphere. It’s all headbands, high kicks and split leaps, precise and powerfully executed, just as we remember it back in the '80s.
The set is pleasantly reminiscent of high school days as bashed-up blue lockers are wheeled on and offstage to create a sense of place, but there’s also a distracting backdrop of black and white yearbook pics with lots of '80s hairdos, impossible to decipher whom they are, apart from when Carmen is highlighted at the end of the show in the graduation memorial scene.
There are some simple moral messages to impart that span the generations such as drugs are bad, racism needs fighting, work hard and you may get somewhere, don't stray from the path and always believe in yourself. Mostly though, Fame, the musical version, is a light-hearted, fun night and the darkness lurking behind the Lycra is so momentary that if you blink you'll miss it.
Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi