Fame the Musical is lighting up the stage at Milton Keynes Theatre this week, delivering a high-energy burst of nostalgia for fans of the film and inspiring a brand new generation.
This revamped 30th anniversary production, directed and choreographed by Nick Winston, brings a fresh vibrancy to the original teen musical.
Long before Glee (2009–2015) and High School Musical (2006), Fame mixed an intoxicating cocktail of drama, music, singing and dancing to chronicle the lives of performing arts students mastering their craft in anticipation of a big break. The film was released in 1980 and swiftly became a sensation, generating a popular television show and a smash-hit stage musical.
Currently touring the UK, the latest rendering of Fame the Musical is entertaining audiences with dynamic dance and electrifying vocals. And THAT song; that triumphant theme tune you just can’t help but remember? Well, it doesn’t have its moment centre stage until the finale so I’m still humming it now!
The story follows a group of youngsters as they progress from anxious auditions at the New York High School for the Performing Arts through to graduation. As aspiring stars, they work hard to perfect their industry skills. But they are also adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, so they encounter a variety of insecurities and social issues.
Fame the Musical is such a success because it is a timeless tale. The narrative centres around teenage dreams and features characters who must dig deep to find the determination to be disciplined in pursuit of their ambitions and the guts to face up to everything life throws at them.
Issues covered include identity, prejudice, romance, sexuality, drug abuse, literacy and perseverance. Add a toe-tapping soundtrack, lively lyrics and spirited choreography and the result is an exuberant production that feels just as raw and relevant today — in an era of television talent shows and online shortcuts to celebrity status — as it must have back in the eighties.
Admittedly, the character development feels somewhat lacking. There are so many personalities in this diverse group of wannabe performers that it takes a little while to be able to empathise with them as individuals, and we never get to fully understand them.
Similarly, although the fast-paced scene changes — complete with showy flashing lights and dramatic blackouts — are slickly executed and keep us engaged, they result in passages ending rather abruptly.
Fame the Musical stars soul songstress Mica Paris as authoritative, yet ardently devoted, English teacher Miss Esther Sherman. She raises the roof with heartfelt solo, These Are My Children, and banters brilliantly with Katie Warsop (portraying dance teacher Miss Bell) when the educators disagree about whether artists really need academic qualifications.
Each cast member has an opportunity to excel and the stage overflows with talented, charismatic human beings. Standout songs include Let’s Play A Love Scene (a stunning performance from Molly McGuire as infatuated actress Serena), In LA (a devastatingly powerful solo by Stephanie Rojas as fiery, fame-hungry Carmen) and optimistic anthem Bring On Tomorrow (Simon Anthony as Schlomo, later joined by the entire cast).
The show’s publicity makes a lot of soap actress Jorgie Porter (Hollyoaks, Dancing on Ice) being cast as featured ballet dancer Iris and she does have great chemistry with the excellent Jamal Kane Crawford who plays streetwise self-taught dancer Tyrone. Their duets are lyrical and pleasingly uncontrived. However, I can’t help but be disappointed by ‘ballet dancers’ in musicals who do not really get to grips with ballet technique. Elsewhere, Crawford is in fine form cavorting through his big number, Dancin’ On The Sidewalk, and both performers shine during the upbeat commercial routines.
Special mention must be made of those cast members who not only act, sing and dance but also play instruments as part of their role. Bravo to Simon Anthony (Schlomo on piano and guitar), Alexander Zane (Goody the saxophonist) and Louisa Beadel (Grace ‘Lambchops’ Lamb who plays the drums and, grudgingly, the triangle).
Fame the Musical is fun and full of life. Everything about it is bursting with youthful get-up-and-go, including Morgan Large’s designs. (The backdrop is a wall of yearbook portraits that light up, and carefully curated scenery is wheeled on and off stage in entrances and exits that are incorporated into dance routines.)
The audience needed very little persuasion to be up on their feet singing and dancing along during the finale. Thirty years since it was first staged, this musical shows no sign of losing its spark. It may well “live forever”!
Fame the Musical continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 29th June 2019.
Georgina Butler is a journalist, a dance writer and a dance teacher who specialises in teaching classical ballet. She previews and reviews productions, writes features and interviews people from the world of dance.