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The Phoenix Productions and Magic Arts & Entertainment National Tour of Fame the Musical, which Broadway at Duke brought to Page Auditorium on Nov. 17, was a very enjoyable dance-driven musical smartly staged by director Bill Castellino and crisply choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. But the show's effectiveness was diminished by some sub-par performances and plagued by sound problems.
Although the largely student audience in Page Auditorium gave the show an enthusiastic standing ovation at the final curtain, several members of the young and talented cast of this coming-of-age musical, set at New York City's famous High School of Performing Arts in the early 1980s, lacked the panache — and the polish — to make their characterizations completely convincing. And sound designer Craig Cassidy struggled all evening to make the lead vocals audible over the exuberant accompaniment by conductor Jasper Grant and orchestra.
Inspired by British director Alan Parker's award-winning 1980 motion picture Fame, with its Academy Award-winning title tune by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, and the subsequent highly successful 1982-87 television series, Fame the Musical was originally conceived and developed by David de Silva. It features an anemic book by Jose Fernandez, soaring melodies by Steven Margoshes, and snappy lyrics by Jacques Levy.
The musical follows 10 or so dance, drama, and music prodigies through four years of high school (1980-1984) as they hone their craft, tackle basic academic subjects, and cope with the common problems of the urban adolescent — i.e., sex, drugs, crises in self-confidence, academic shortcomings, etc. — circa 1980. The problem is, these characters are thinly sketched and hardly three-dimensional in the book, so considerable panache is required to make them truly stand out from the common herd of high-school students.
Unfortunately, panache is at a premium in the current national tour of Fame. Carmen Diaz, the lovely Latina songstress with the predictable (and stereotypical) drug problem, is blandly played by beautiful Mekia Cox, a strong singer ("There She Goes," "Fame," "In LA") but a plain-vanilla actress. Cox's Carmen is an IT Girl without "it."
Anthony Wayne tackles another high-school stereotype — an awesome African-American dancer/choreographer who cannot even read an Alphabits box — with gusto, but he too lacks the acting chops to make his onstage dance partnership and offstage interracial romance with fellow dancing prodigy Iris Kelly (Julie Burdick) completely believable. Burdick also lacks the spark to help Iris' romance with Tyrone catch fire.
Colin Cunliffe and Megan Elizabeth Lewis have great chemistry, and a much stronger grip on their roles, as veteran teenage actor Nick Piazza and novice actress Serena Katz. They are the class Romeo and Juliet, and they also play those parts in the high school's production of Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare's timeless tragedy of star-crossed lovers.
Justin Speranza is good as nerdish budding violin virtuoso Schlomo Metzenbaum, who (inexplicably) falls hard for Carmen Diaz; and Pablo Murcia and Kellee Knighten are amusing as Freddie Prinze wannabe Joe "Jose" Vargas, the class clown (and another Latino stereotype), and Mabel Washington, the aspiring dancer who just cannot stop eating. And Elana Architzel is a terrific — as a musician and an actress — as oddball drummer Grace "Lambchops" Lamb.
Dana Baráthy and Toni Malone are constantly at odds as dance teacher Greta Bell and strait-laced English teacher Ester Sherman. Baráthy is the better actress, and Malone is the better singer.
Although the paper-thin script of Fame the Musical may not provide sufficient material for award-winning performances, the more charismatic cast members of the current National Tour transform their skimpy character notes into full-blooded characterizations, whereas the less charismatic players tend to fade into the background.
The Steve Margoshes and Jacques Levy songs provide the entire cast an opportunity to shine, and they do. Showstopping numbers include Megan Elizabeth Lewis's solo on "Let's Play a Love Scene" and "Think of Meryl Streep"; Kellee Knighten's comical complaint — in "Mabel's Prayer" — about being the world's fattest ballet dancer; and Toni Malone's heartfelt vocal on "These Are My Children."
Broadway at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/duu/broadway/broadwayevents.htm. Fame the Musical: http://www.famenetwork.com/ [inactive 12/03]. Fame (1980 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080716/. Fame (1982-87 TV Series): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083412/.