FAME AT THE WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND THEATRE
Theatre Run: Monday 03 - Saturday 08 March 2014
Performance Reviewed: Monday 03 March 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
The original Fame was a product of its time, a minor cultural zeitgeist that went on to spawn not just its own TV spinoff and international theatre production, but a whole host of imitators and pretenders, with it’s inspiration and general premise permeating through theatre, television and film even to this day (the likes of High School Musical, Glee, Smash and many more were born here). After the woefully misjudged 2009 attempt at rejuvenating and renovating the original to cater to contemporary cinema audiences (a mission which, judging by it’s critical and box office mauling, failed painfully so), it has unsurprisingly taken a trip to the boards to make Fame not only relevant in its message and ethos to modern audiences, but an overall thoroughly satisfying, exuberant and kinetic theatre-going experience courtesy of this new 25th Anniversary production.
There are adjustments and re-tweaks to be sure, the book now peppered with references to the likes of Katy Perry and Rihanna to keep it all up to date, and even minor touches such as the implementing of smart phones and tablets do a neat job of pulling the show into the here and now. There’s even a very welcome and knowing dig at the productions’ own history thrown in, with a teacher offering a post-modern lament at the reputation of their school being seen as a go-to establishment for quick fame ever since the release of ‘that’ film. Still, despite these mostly cosmetic adjustments, this remains quintessentially the same Fame experience as before, merely seen through the filter of 2014 as opposed to the early 80’s.
Crucially, the overall message and raison d'être of Fame remains just as relevant, if perhaps even more so, in todays cultural climate of reality celebrities and overnight success being a tangible thing so often devoid of talent. Following the progression of a group of talented young students at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts from beginning through to graduation, Fame offers a still-refreshing perspective on talent and attrition, championing the virtue of hard work and discipline within a craft, and flying in the face of so many conventional musical theatre approaches to dreams and success in at times a fairly sobering manner. There is conflict shown between some of the college’s staff, for instance when a teacher desperately wishes to pass one of her illiterate students on the grounds of him being an incredibly gifted dancer and affording him future opportunities as such, but it has to be said generally Fame is very definitely not the poster boy for no-frills wish fulfillment that it’s now iconic titular number may seem to imply.
That is, of course, enormously to the show’s credit, as the first Act in particular seems to set up a fairly predictable and atypical series of vignettes and dynamics between the students. Jodie Steele plays the fiery, spirited and self-serving Carmen Diaz, a superbly talented dancer-singer whose cold shoulder and uptight demeanour just screams out for a second Act change of heart and finding of herself. Similarly, Alex Thomas’ Tyrone, a genuine tour-de-force of exquisite dance and movement, neglects his studies and has a questionable attitude but gradually finds support and kindness from dance teacher Miss Bell (Hermione Lynch) and ballet enthusiast Iris (Sasi Strallen). Enthusiastic Serena (Sarah Harlington) longs to be an actress but seems mostly set on winning the heart of fellow thespian Nick Piazza (Alex Jordan-Mills), who may or may not be gay.
As the pieces of Fame’s narrative fall into play, it all seems a wrapped up and done deal, which is what makes it’s particularly effective second Act all the more effective, and arguably, important. Whilst there is enough feel-good and moments of lightness, not to mention some genuinely happy outcomes for some of the students, there is still enough shade to the optimism and injections of harrowing reality to ground Fame and make it a much more meaningful and impacting production and musical than the vast majority of imitations that followed.
This 25th Anniversary touring production takes a fairly minimalist but efficient approach to staging, the sense of place and geography encapsulated with central blocks of staging that double as classrooms, ballet studios, theatre halls and even New York sidewalks. It’s fairly typical touring production aesthetic, but it sells itself with a relative ease and simplicity. A rhythmic, bombastic approach to lighting design helps sell the simplicity of the set pieces, immersing the audience in a bathe of colour and beams, and at times there is some genuinely impressive transition work as musical numbers take over and transport the show out of its confinements - perhaps most notably so in the likes of Tyrone’s ‘Dancin’ on the Sidewalk’ number which segues into the city, and to comedic effect in ‘Mabel’s Prayer’ as the character begs for religious intervention with her eating habits.
A mostly excellent, West End-worthy cast have been assembled for this touring production, and do a brilliant, spirited job of celebrating the show’s hallmark anniversary. Most notably the majority of the student roles look of an appropriate age - there being nothing more disconcerting than seeing mid-late teens being played by people twice the age (I’m looking at you, Grease). Jodie Steele brings enough fire and, eventually, vulnerability, to endear us to her Carmen, despite an occasionally wobbly accent, and knocks her signature numbers out of the park with a genuinely impressive vocal range and clout that is put to stunning use in ‘In La’ in particular. Alex Jordan-Mills and Sarah Harlington make Nick and Serena an endearing and likable pairing with material that could easily be made hokey or irritating, whilst Joseph Giacone and Molly Stewart give hilarious, scene-stealing comedic supporting turns backed up by great vocals. Stewart in particular gives arguably the audiences most appreciated number with the aforementioned ‘Mabel’s Prayer’ getting audibly the biggest cheer. Harry Blumenau is tender and sincere as Carmen’s unlikely love interest Schlomo who, despite being sidelined for much of Act 2, nonetheless remains a sympathetic voice of heart and reason. Alex Thomas is a veritable force of nature as a dancer, commanding the stage and attention with a dizzying diversity and control to dance and choreography that is as technically sharp and on-point as it is artistically and aesthetically satisfying. He is not the strongest of actors, at times his delivery of dialogue a touch stilted, but this is more than compensated for in movement, which thankfully the character gets to do a lot of.
Hermione Lynch, David Haydn and John Canmore give perfectly agreeable supporting turns as tutors though understandably play second fiddle to the students (Canmore’s Mr Scheinkopf particularly so), but fortunately the role of Miss Sherman, the students principled English tutor, allows plenty of opportunity for the wonderful talents of Landi Oshinowo. Having recently been impressed by her supporting role as ‘Dragon’ in Shrek the Musical, here Miss Sherman offers the tremendously talented Landi a chance to sink her teeth into slightly more dramatic material, a task she rises to with aplomb, giving arguably the shows most accomplished and authentic acting performance, as well as once again displaying some truly show-stopping vocals, particularly in ‘These Are My Children’. It is no hyperbole to say she is one of the most gifted and consistent performers in current UK musical theatre.
For all of this rumination on Fame’s less-than-rosy outlook on its subject matter, and its still-relevant edict on working hard to achieve your dreams, don’t be fooled into thinking that leaves no room for plenty of big, cheesy fun to be had. This is still a big, fun, brash musical that has simply done a neat job of shedding any excessive 80‘s stylings and framework to slot itself neatly into modernity. It's catalogue of numbers include some now signature pieces, and every rendition of the title hit manages to get the audience clapping or toe-tapping along in glee. If any of the show does seem overly familiar or trite, it is more likely than not due to Fame being the genesis of many of the ideas or narrative tropes that have since become somewhat typical in this particular musical theatre tale of sorts. 25 years later, this remains a joy ride of an experience that balances the cheese and cheer with some re-affirming sobriety and inferences of important life lessons.
Make no doubt about it, Fame is back, and if it does indeed want to live forever, then this 25th anniversary production refresh is a vibrant, kinetic and confident re-assurance that it could be well on it’s way to doing just that.
Remember the name.
RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
FAME is running at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Monday 03 to Saturday 08 March 2014.
CLICK HERE for more information on the show's run at the Wolverhampton Grand and to book your tickets!
Alternatively, telephone the Box Office directly on 01902 42 92 12.
For more news, updates and exclusive content, be sure to follow Kyle on Twitter!
Press tickets for this performance of Fame were provided courtesy of Wolverhampton Grand directly. The author gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.