by Janice L. Franklin
Dallas — Fame the Musical is not Fame the movie, nor is it Fame the television show, though the basic story is unchanged. With the exception of the title song “Fame,” written by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, this is still the story of a group of performing arts students and their quest for fame and stardom. The Junior Players cast refreshes these characters and reminds us why we fell in love with them so many years ago. Directed by Bruce R. Coleman and Valerie Hauss-Smith, this production demonstrates once again that there are talented young people in Dallas and when given the opportunity to work with individuals that believe in them, wonderful things can happen. Coleman, Hauss-Smith, choreographer Donna Murray and music director John Norine, Jr. have shaped just such an opportunity through this show. The opening performance Thursday evening at Dallas City Performance Hall was well received by the audience.
Junior Players believes that the “journey into a brighter future can begin with a single step into the spotlight.” It is passionate about creating a space for children to flourish and shine. The organization provides opportunities to young people through offering arts education programming. They are the oldest non-profit children’s theater organization in Dallas. Children ages 6 through 14 are able to study theater, music, dance, and visual arts. Their casts introduce students from thirteen high schools in North Texas. This is their second production in the Dallas City Performance Hall.
Fame the Musical was conceived and developed by David de Silva, who was the originator of the movie (1980), and consulting producer on the television show (1982-‘83 pre-syndication). While the movie and television productions materialized first, it was for the theater that de Silva’s deep desire to “create a show that would be relevant and timeless as a musical” resided. Working with composer Steve Margoshes and lyricist Jacques Levy, with book by José Fernandez, the project jelled and was first produced onstage at the Coconut Grove in Miami in 1988. The title song “Fame” was.
The setting is New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts (referred to in the musical as the P.A.). In the first act, we receive the character profiles of the faculty, and of the students as freshmen. The first teacher they meet is Miss Sherman (Natalia Botello), the English teacher whom the students discover will be the most intellectually demanding of their teachers. Ms. Bell (Rachel Nicole Poole), the dance teacher, is demanding yet nurturing. The acting teacher, Mr. Meyers (Roberto Carlos Garcia) takes a more philosophical approach with the students while the music teacher, Mr. Sheinkopf (Rodolfo López) is stereotypically narrow in his views of what constitutes good music.
Serena Katz (Madeline Norton) is the shyest yet most talented acting student. Nick Piazza (Matthew Nguyen) is the acting student that is apologetic for already having a professional resumé, thanks to a pushy stage mother. These two develop an attraction for each other that finally explodes through the song “Let’s Play a Love Scene” which is reprised during the second act. This is one of the strongest duet performances of the evening. José Vegas is the class clown, the actor that provides the comic relief in the piece. Vinnie Perez is quite funny in this role.
Dancers Tyrone Jackson (Dar’ren Agers) and Iris Kelly (Elizabeth Drake) are the students perceived initially as the most unlikely coupling. Agers and Drake are believable as students from opposite worlds coming together through their passion for the dance. As Tyrone, Agers is required to affect streetwise inappropriate behavior in an effort to conceal the fact that Tyrone has a reading problem. In what could have become uncomfortable moments, Agers delivers, the tension is created, but without rendering the character unlikeable. That is a delicate balance for a teenager to strike. Mabel Washington (Alison Sloan) is the dancer that eats constantly, and Carmen Diaz (Maya Quetzali) is the dancer that will become the tragic figure in the story. Quetzali’s strength is in her acting and she is sympathetic as Carmen.
Musicians Schlomo Metzenbaum (Dru Miers), Grace “Lambchops” Lamb (Ryan Cameron), and Goodman “Goody” King (Jadyn Tchardja), actually play their instruments—piano, drums, guitar quite well.
Notable acting performances come from Dru Miers, Madeline Norton, Natalia Botello and Dar’ren Agers. Their character portrayals are consistent and believable, and their deliveries strong. Madeline Norton has a beautiful vocal tone and good technique. The duet “The Teacher’s Argument” in Act I is outstanding with very strong performances from Natalia Botello and Rachel Nicole Poole.
This is a dance-heavy show. One of the early routines in the first act is more cheerleader-ish, but overall the choreography is reflective of modern social dance styles. The script organizes the characters by performance disciplines. During production numbers, entrances and exits are sometimes organized through these defined groups but the combinations involve the entire ensemble. With a cast this size (25!) and with so many story threads, creating clean, interesting and aesthetically pleasing movement for the entire ensemble is not an easy task. The directors and choreographer manage the movement well, designing routines that matched the students’ levels.
The performers are well-prepared, enthusiastic, energetic, and enjoyable. We will undoubtedly see some of these actors in the future on local stages. There are nice acting moments and they dance with confidence. These young performers have every reason to be proud of themselves.
The less successful moments in this production are musical, particularly with harmonies. Sometimes, when working with singers who cannot hear harmony well, it is best to have the duet sung in unison. That is preferable to discordant moments of song.
On Thursday, occasionally the orchestra overpowered the vocals. Natalia Botello has a big sound and managed to push through and be heard anyway in “These Are My Children.” The orchestra had the best synergy in “Think of Meryl Streep,” a dramatic solo for Serena Katz’ character in Act II.
There is a lot of ability and promise in the cast of Fame the Musical. This is a musical that people sometimes forget about, so it is nice to have a production onstage that brings it all back with enthusiasm and joy.
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