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Review
Fame - The Musical
at Shaftesbury Theatre

Review by Peter Brown
9 May 2007


It always strikes me as being rather ludicrous for people to desire fame when the rewards of it are so monumentally restrictive, and generally transient. True, there are mountains of cash to be had, but the freedom to simply wander the streets unhindered is soon denied to the recipients. And having to deal with a constant flock of hawkish paparazzi and gauping devotees, is not exactly my idea of a treat. In spite of the undoubted downside, there's a never-ending stream of the fame-obsessed who are willing to sacrifice everything - souls included - to attain their glittering prize. It's the early stages of this obsession that 'Fame' focuses on - the start of budding artistic careers, where talented youngsters slave away at their studies desperately hoping to step on to the celebrity escalator.

'Fame' has a somewhat confusing history since it's been a film, a musical and also a hit TV series. In fact it all started with the film, conceived by David de Silva and directed by Alan Parker in 1980. After that, it went on to become a hit TV show lasting from 1982 to 1987. Finally, 'Fame' moved on to its musical versions which began in London's West End in 1995, and where it has been running almost continually since, nimbly hopping from theatre to theatre and also whizzing round the country on frequent tours. It's now landed at the Shaftesbury Theatre for a summer season.

With a West End awash with musicals of almost every conceivable kind, 'Fame' now has incredible competition, and in its present form falls rather short of what most people expect from a musical these days. The script is weak, dated and trite, and there is a kind of tired feeling about it that seems to demand retirement to a greener and more pleasant land. At the very least, it should be given a face-lift with an injection of some gritty reality and modernism, and would certainly benefit from being brought thoroughly up-to-date. In comparison with 'Little Shop Of Horrors', for example, it appears rather second rate and bland. And with the opening of the multi-million pound extravaganza that is the new 'Lord of The Rings', it may sink into the realms of a museum piece.

'Fame' focuses on the burning ambitions of about 10 students at New York's High School for the Performing Arts. In general they hang out in pairs. Each of them has their own problems, which include illiteracy, drug abuse and sexual desire. We meet the students when they arrive at the school for their first term, and then see snapshots of their lives during their studies, climaxing with their graduation (or not, depending on the individuals).

In spite of my reservations about the overall quality of the musical, the dancing and choreography in this version are generally very good, and the company singing is rousing and enjoyable. But some of the individual singing is weak and lacklustre, though Fem Belling took the prize for best vocals in her role as Mabel with a number entitled 'Mabel's Prayer'. Not only did she get the best applause of the evening, it also seemed more spontaneous and genuinely heartfelt on the part of the audience – they were obviously desperate for someone to really move them.

There are significant weaknesses in the acting department which would give any producer/ director cause for concern. Apart from Jacqui Dubois who plays English teacher Miss Sherman, the teaching staff are eminently forgettable, and seem to have been cast on the basis of their total lack of charisma - how could one possibly believe that this staff would inspire students to glory? Never in a million years, in my opinion.

The students, I'm afraid aren't that much better, but they have the head over the staff. Best of the bunch is Natalie Casey (playing Serena Katz) who has the acting ability and presence to hold attention, but even she struggled with the script until she found a line which worked for her: “Get off the stairs, they're my stairs now!”. Casey aside, what's really lacking in the show is a good dollop of humour – it only managed a few giggles from a crowd intent on enjoying themselves – and a hefty dose of charisma.

Unfortunately for both cast and audience alike, the technical gremlins pounced mid-way through the first half, and caused a short delay. Invariably unsettling for any cast, the company coped professionally, though the first act still seemed a lost cause. The second half seemed to get a bit of a fillip - perhaps the blow of the technical glitch had dissipated, or perhaps someone had given the cast a motivational lecture. Either way, it felt better to me, but sadly more laboured to my colleague who was ready to leave after about 20 minutes, complaining that the singing was average and the songs unmemorable. In the latter respect, I have to concur. The songs are, apart from one or two nice ballads such as 'I wanna make magic', largely unmemorable, apart from the title song which we've all heard zillions of times.

Judging by the audience, the show seems to appeal to a younger crowd - school parties seemed to outnumber couples and individuals several times over. Now that's no bad thing, but I think they're being short-changed. What 'Fame' really needs is a total make-over - particularly in the script and character department to bring it up to date - in its present incarnation it is a dated period piece that bears little connection with the reality which most of its audience have to face on a daily basis, or the material they soak-up on TV. Interestingly, English teacher Miss Sherman, highlights an important statistic during the show - "90% of our students will never make a living from the arts". Given that that is probably true, it's hard to know why so many students want to study the arts, or indeed why so many pursue fame itself. I suppose it's the power of dreams – sadly not mirrored in the musical.

(Peter Brown)




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