Like the students in the high school it depicts, the touring production of "Fame: The Musical" shows great talent in some areas and doesn't apply itself in others.
Its first act boils; its second act simmers. Some characters act as if they were in a sitcom; others deliver their lines with simple sincerity. Some singers have voices Fed-Exed straight from the heavens. Some don't.
Sometimes it seems like a perfect play for starry-eyed pre-teens. Then it gets horny and vulgar. But those who might embrace that very horny vulgarity may roll their eyes at the slapstick goofiness that more often prevails.
But when Regina LeVert, as the tough English teacher Ester Sherman, stands alone center stage, frustrated and forlorn, and sings "These Are My Children," all those successes and failures seem like mere pop quizzes. This is the defining moment of "Fame," a moral message that is timeless and true: These students may have their gifts, but the chance to teach is her gift, and she treasures it even when the children fail, even when they slack off, even when one stares her straight in the eye and calls her "bitch."
Yes, "Fame" can get intense, albeit in a cliched and stereotypical manner. Inspired by the 1980 film and ensuing television series of the same name, "Fame" focuses on a class of students as they advance through New York's High School of the Performing Arts the dream academy of many a creative teen-ager. This class contains a full rainbow of characters, both in ethnicity and personality. There's the prim rich girl, the tough boy, the jokester, the shy girl, the tomboy, the nerd and the drug-addicted slut.
Just like high school itself, "Fame" is full of little subplots. Most are too diluted to get caught up in Will the rock band become famous? Will Nick ever kiss Serena? but the primary themes are illiteracy (which, to writer Jose Fernandez' credit, is not solved in the span of a quick musical number), and Hollywood's deceptive lure. Neither is very engrossing or surprising, primarily because the play merely skims their surfaces and because the actors -- excluding LeVert and Carl Tramon as Schlomo, the pensive violinist -- seem perpetually disconnected from one another emotionally.
Many of Jacques Levy's lyrics were difficult to decipher through the microphones, loud band and sound system, as well as rushed phrasing. And Natasha Rennalls, as Carmen Diaz, one of the lead characters, drooped flat frequently during her solo vocal numbers. She had a lovely voice, as some passages revealed, but too often it was pushed to abrasive extremes.
The characters also fall into some disturbing stereotypes that will likely offend some audience members. Why must the illiterate boy and the lazy, overweight girl who drops dance because it's too hard be black? Why must the class clown and the tramp be Hispanic? Granted, Ester Sherman counteracts that as a strong black female who promotes hard work and academics. But the other characters should be ethnically interchangeable, too; laziness, sluttiness and stupidity are unfortunately universal faults.
Still, "Fame" has several alluring factors. Lars Bethke, director and choreographer, created clever dance numbers that make use of the full ensemble and stage and add spice to some emotionally bland scenes. Norbert U. Kolb's scenic design is moody and inventive. And Paul Tazewell's costumes define the characters well and advance to brilliant zaniness in the reprise of "I Want to Make Magic," an otherwise forgetful song.
Joe (Jose Restrepo), the class clown, is truly funny, particularly in his Romeo scene, one of the play's few roar-aloud moments. And his "Can't Keep It Down," a song devoted to the bane of a teen boy's existence, impromptu erections, comes as a true surprise, appropriately.
Dwayne Chattman also offers some of the play's stronger moments as Tyrone, the angry, street-wise but academically-unwise dancer who struggles with illiteracy. He's a terrific gymnast, too, and Bethke has him flipping around like an IHOP pancake.
"Mabel's Prayer," sung by the overweight Mabel (Dioni Michelle Collins), is also charming, arranged in the style of the catchy "Beauty School Dropout" in "Grease" and sung with a soulful honesty. Jennifer Gambatese (Serena) also has a lovely, wide-ranging voice, though she's stuck lugging around one of theater's most awkward refrains: "Think of Meryl Streep."
The play's familiar theme song is also given a new twist here. Sung by Rennalls, it transforms into a Spanish translation to a mariachi beat.
The musical's youthful characters make "Fame" seem like an ideal play for Gen-X theatergoers, and indeed there were hoots and whistles from teens when the characters kissed and flirted (the children in the audience yelled a collective "Eeeew!" at the sight of the first kiss, but you decide if you want your teenie-bopper hearing references to hard-ons and Tootsie Roll-size penises). But the Oakdale show drew a good number of elderly people and they chuckled often in appreciation of its goofy humor. Go figure.
The touring production closes Feb. 21 in Wallingford, then moves to the Providence Performing Arts Center in Rhode Island from Feb. 22 to 28. For the show's full touring schedule, surf to its Web site at http://www.FametheMusical.com/
A shorter version of this review originally appeared in the Meriden Record-Journal newspaper
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