Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 4th March, 2014
Fame‘s first incarnation was Alan Parker’s hard-hitting film of 1980, in which an assortment of aspiring performing arts students get their bubbles burst, their illusions shattered and their hearts broken in a variety of ways. The film (which is still an excellent watch) was adapted into a more family-friendly television series that did pretty well.
This current production is an updated version of the stage show from a few years back, and so the characters have mobile phones and the music has an edgier, urban sound. Ish.
But don’t expect the characters from the film or TV show. Here we get alternative versions. Leroy is now Tyrone, Coco is now Carmen, and beloved Mr Shorofsky is now Mr Scheinkopf. Don’t ask me why. The only recognisable elements are the theme song with its iconic guitar riff and the setting, the New York High School for the Performing Arts – a kind of Hogwarts for egotists and extroverts.
The trouble is, because this is a musical, everyone sings and dances all the time. They express themselves through song and dance and they’re all bloody good at it. The question arises: why do they need to attend a performing arts school for four years? What can the course possibly teach them that they’re not already doing in their daily lives? It’s a clash of form and content that could be solved by staging the story as a straight play with musical numbers, then we could see the students progress, succeed or fail. As it is, they all look like they’ve aced the course already.
The quality of the production values is very high. this talented ensemble exudes energy that infects and invigorates the audience. It is a pity that the material doesn’t match their abilities. There are so many characters there isn’t really time to develop each subplot satisfactorily. Serena (Sarah Harlington) sings sweetly about her unrequited love for Nick (Alex Jordan-Mills) then hears a rumour he is gay. She confronts him about it. “I’m not gay,” he tells her. Oh, ok then. Problem solved. Promising dancer Tyrone (a superb Alex Thomas) hides his illiteracy behind belligerence and swagger. Cue an unconvincing sing-off about educational policy by the English and Dance teachers. As Miss Sherman, Landi Oshinowo belts like a Motormouth Maybelle, but I couldn’t stomach her solo, impressively sung though it was, about thanking god for blessing her with the teaching profession. Tyrone is eventually kicked out. Problem solved. Well, not really.
Joseph Giacone grabs our attention as class clown Joey (not Johnny) Vegas. it’s disappointing that he is sort of sidelined later on. His resolution is a throwaway line saying he’s appearing at a comedy club. Jodie Steele is riveting as fame-hungry drama queen Carmen. who drops out to try her luck in Los Angeles, only to return broken and bedraggled and to walk in front of a car. Not the best ending to a story that was building nicely about drug abuse.
Molly Stewart stops the show as food enthusiast Mabel with a country/gospel number about being unable to stick to a diet. it’s a fun, feel-good moment, at the end of which she shrugs and decides to switch her major to Drama. Problem solved.
The final scene – graduation! – has them all filing on in robes to sing the song Carmen supposedly wrote. It’s mawkish, sentimental tripe about facing the future with optimism. “Bring on tomorrow!” Instead of being emotionally affecting or uplifting, it’s enough to make you sick. Bring on the buckets, more like.
It’s not enough to update the script to name-drop Rihanna and even Freddie Prinze Jr (yes, him). A couple of sub-plots need to be cut in order to allow the others to breathe. And the show shouldn’t fudge any of the issues it dances around, in order to maximise emotional impact. I think this dazzling cast of young performers deserve a better story to tell.