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Backstage at Running To Places' Fame, Opening January 16
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
By Ross Haarstad

R2P at State Theatre
Running to Places opens 2015 with Fame next week at the State Theatre.

“And that’s intermission!” And with that, over forty teens dropped their final pose and dispersed from the large dance studio as Running to Places director Joey Steinhagen called a five-minute break.

Steinhagen immediately sidled over to co-choreographer Fatima Sowe and asked her to fix the act one finale before the cast starts act two. “My acting note is no smiles; they’re scared.” She nodded.

It’s just 12 days to the opening of Fame, The Musical and cast and creative team are undergoing the first full run-through. Stuffed into the corners of their home studio at the Just Be Cause Center are returning Running to Places creative team members music director Jeremy Pletter, and Deb and Jim Drew (set design & build). Next to Sowe sat co-choreographer G-Quan Booker, new to the team, who directs the hip-hop sequences. Sophia Tantillo, a Trumansburg High School sophomore, occasionally gave lines to the cast, as stage manager, while Emmet Scott is non-stop on the keyboard.

Cast re-gathered, Sowe gives some quick assignments on gestures, then lays out the quality of the number: “You’re not going ‘to live forever.’ She [teacher Mrs. Sherman] just made you mortal. Shut it down. Okay, ‘hard work, pause, pause, pause …’” The number is quickly reshaped to reflect the wake-up call the students just received that talent ain’t gonna cut it alone.

Based loosely on the cult film and subsequent television series, Fame follows a class of students through four years at NYC’s High School of Performing Arts (1980 to ’84). Ambition, a passion for dance, acting, and music; class and ethnic differences are packed into these years. And a lot of hormones. (Drugs and some raunchy language are included.) “But it’s age appropriate for the characters,” said Steinhagen. “The show is about high school students pursuing their lives and passions and these are the things that come up.”

He chose to launch R2P’s eighth season by going back to their very first show, in part a celebration of R2P (also a site for ambitious, talented youth) and an acknowledgement of a return to its roots: no longer are youth charged to participate.

This ensemble show focuses on the stories of “fame-obsessed Carmen (Ilana Wallenstein), ambitious actors Serena (Elisheva Glaser) and Nick (Michael Sloan), wisecracking comedian Joe (Matthew Skrovan), earnest composer Schlomo (Max Avramis), and talented dancers Tyrone (Christian Henry), Iris (Kamryn Phlegar) and Mabel (Laura Fegely). Teachers, including Ms. Bell (Lisa Podulka) and Ms. Sherman (Jewell Payne) try—and sometimes fail—to educate and guide.”

Power ballads, some hip-hop and dance sequences abound. As Carmen, Wallenstein gets the title song from the movie (still the highlight), a simple duet after she surprises her self by falling for Schlomo (an easeful and appealing Avramis), and a blistering torch belt (“In L.A.”) when she returns disillusioned by her abortive attempt at stardom. Podulka and Payne have it out as teachers with different philosophies in a pounding duet (“artists are special” vs. “artists are people”) while Payne also has a moving ballad, “These Are My Children.” It’s an astonishing lineup of vocal power.

Sloan brings his earnest intensity to “I Want To Make Magic” while Skrovran proves reliably goofy and comical in “Can’t Keep It Down” (an ode to horniness). Glaser as Serena is the Juliet of the piece, and has the more yearning songs, played with simple sincerity. Fegely does nicely with the country stylings of “Mabel’s Prayer” in the obligatory funny fat girl role.

Stepping strongly into the spotlight for this production is Henry as Tyrone, dancing up a storm (both ballet and hip-hop), angry and witty at turns, well partnered by Phlegar. •

The show runs one weekend only at the State Theatre: January 16-18, Friday and Saturday at 7 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $15 the day of the show, $13 if purchased in advance, available at the State Theatre box office.

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