I really wanted to hate Fame: The Musical. I really did. But the predecessor to High School Musical and Glee just wouldn’t let me. I started off slouching in my seat and watching through gritted teeth. But by the end I was stood up and clapping along to the encore. What makes it so addictive is a combination of stunning choreography, strong performances, and a narrative that is not afraid to deal with sensitive subjects alongside the more typical romance of the coming-of-age genre. So despite my initial reservations, the end result found this 27 year old male confessing that Fame was, actually, very good.
Set in New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, the opening scene is very much like an advert for the next series of Britain’s Got Talent. We get a musical montage of instrumentalists, singers, dancers, and actors, all of whom are auditioning for a place at the school. Before we know it, these young hopefuls have all won a scholarship to study under the tutelage of Miss Sherman (played by Mica Paris) and her staff. It is a speedy set up that allows for the large ensemble of characters to be quickly introduced. It works extremely well, though the danger is that such a large number of characters could result in a lack of narrative focus or bland stereotypes. Not so here. As the narrative slows to a timelier pace, the ability to spend quality time with each of these characters is not at all hindered by their quantity. Yes, there is the establishment of major and minor characters in order to not overwhelm the audience. Yet even these secondary figures are fleshed out to such an extent that they become familiar enough to care about. What binds their stories together and keeps the narrative moving forward is the music. The music is the key ingredient in ensuring that we don’t get lost in the myriad of storylines that are happening on stage.
The music also plays a key part in the amazing routines that take place on stage. Choreographer Nick Winston is the man to credit for turning my pre-show frown upside down. He has put together a series of spectacular dance scenes which are executed brilliantly by the whole cast. Full of energy, creativity and precision, it was a joy to watch every one of these sequences. They also played a big part in further establishing the identities of each of the major characters, from sex-mad Joe’s I Can’t Keep It Down, to Miss Sherman’s poignant These are My Children, to dyslexic Tyrone’s Dancing on the Sidewalk. Though I would quibble with the appropriate nature of the former given today’s social context – Albey Brookes’ Joe, for me, now belongs firmly in the past – there is still much that remains relevant here. Through the songs and dances of the various characters, Fame confronts issues of race, sexuality, drug use and, of course, identity. It seems to do so with sensitivity even as it leans ultimately on the side of happiness and fun.
After 30 years, Fame still retains a fair bit of sparkle. This is in large part due to some sublime choreography and a highly energetic cast. It also contains a number of excellent vocal performances, not least from Mica Paris, whose finale encore ends the show on a scintillating high. Weaving numerous narrative threads without ever losing the plot, Fame is a dazzlingly brilliant show that peruses some dark corners even as it bathes us in light. I so wanted to hate it. I really did. But in the end, I admit, I found it to be very good.
Click here for more information and tickets.
Originally written as part of the Young Critics North Wales scheme.
Featured Image (C) Venue Cymru