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Wannabes set to fly for 'Fame'

March 23, 2010

OF ALL the kids who starred in Alan Parker's 1980 movie Fame, some went on to middling performing careers, some dropped out entirely, and at least one - the electric Gene Anthony Ray (Leroy) - died, of an HIV-related illness at 41. None, it's fair to say, went on to live forever, even if they did briefly learn how to fly.

That's a point that Kelley Abbey, director and choreographer of the new production of Fame: The Musical that opens at the Regent next month, is quick to make to the young charges in her cast. ''This is basically a story of coming-of-age for these kids, and of transformation, self-discovery, through the performing arts,'' Abbey says as her cast breaks from rehearsals. ''But it also spells out the pitfalls of the business, the harsh realities, as well as the aspirations and dreams.''

The impulse to be famous is as old as the hills, but the growth of TV talent quests such as Idol and So You Think You Can Dance - on which Abbey is a resident choreographer and occasional guest judge - means many would-be limelighters imagine they have spotted a short cut. But, says Abbey, with the fast-track come the failures, and they're just as public as the fame.

''The reality is actually quite in people's faces,'' she says. ''They watch these reality shows, the Idols, and where are they now? Between jobs like this, I go and teach at performing arts schools. On the first day I will ask, 'Why are you here?' And you will have the kids who say, 'I want to be recognised as the best singer or best dancer,' and then you'll have the kid who says, 'I want to be a star'. And usually the kids who want to be a star don't set themselves up for a career of longevity. They set themselves up to be famous and don't have the hunger to hang in there and take the knockbacks and be patient and work harder. They're the kids that tend to fall away.''

Yet the contradictions within this moral-to-the-story are all around as we chat. Eight of the cast members in this production have come straight from the 2009 season of So You Think You Can Dance, including winner Talia Fowler (the ballet-dancing Iris) and Tim ''Timomatic'' Omaji (street kid Tyrone Jackson). They're rehearsing in the big airy studios of Ministry of Dance, established by fellow SYTYCD cast member Jason Coleman in a former wool store in North Melbourne. It's a veritable factory of fantasy, where young dancers can immerse themselves in their craft and whatever dreams - of excellence or stardom - they may have.

And there's Abbey herself, a dancer, choreographer, singer and, now, director who has never been out of work since she joined the Australian Youth Ballet at 12 (she became a principal at 14, touring internationally while somehow still managing to do her HSC in Sydney). She strikes me as more shining beacon than salutary lesson.

''I've worked constantly because I do both [onstage work and off],'' says Abbey, who can count two years acting in TV soap E Street on one side of that ledger and four years spent choreographing the penguins in George Miller's Happy Feet on the other. ''Had I been just a performer, there would have been long stints of waiting, I think. That's why I say to these kids you've got to do everything.''

Amen to that, you can imagine Darlene Love saying. The 68-year-old singer, who plays teacher Miss Sherman, had built a storied career as a vocalist for various Phil Spector-produced girl groups and backing singer to the likes of Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley and Tom Jones when, in 1983, she found herself acting on Broadway in Leader of the Pack. Though the story was based on her life (she also wrote an autobiography, which is now being developed for the big screen), she claims the move to acting came as a shock to the system.

But Love is nothing if not pragmatic. She's in Melbourne on her own for now, as her husband works for a utilities company back in the States. ''Somebody got to have a regular job,'' she says gratefully.

That must have come in handy over the years. ''Yes, it has, I tell ya. He has medical, dental [insurance]. When I'm between jobs, I don't have that.''

Such mundane things are probably a million miles from the minds of the young things in Fame, and maybe that's as it should be. They need their time to dream if they are ever to have even a shot at the big time. But they need the reality check too, and that's something Love brings in spades.

''Every show I get into, without even thinking about it, I become a mother hen,'' says Love, whose oldest child is 48. ''And when they ask, I'll give them a real answer.''

Like Abbey, Love thinks it's important to let young performers know what lies ahead. When she's not working, she visits schools to talk to kids about the life of a performer.

''It's not like a regular job,'' she says. ''It has to be something that you really love and are going to put your time and energy in. You really have to work hard at it.''

Fame is at the Regent from April 16. Details: or 1300 795 012

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