I ought to preface this by admitting that musicals aren’t really my thing. I have seen several and enjoyed large bits of each, but a few years back I had a very bad experience with the unbearable saccharine cultural juggernaut known as Wicked and since then I have tried to steer well clear of anything overly happy-clappy. Fame, one of the most heinous perpetrators of this particular crime, is therefore not really my cup of tea when it comes to a night in the theatre; I confess to being slightly wary as I took to my seat on opening night of DULOG’s extravaganza at the Gala. Yet when something is performed so wonderfully well and with such consummate ease by a band of non-professionals, it’s pretty hard not to smile.
The scriptwriter for Fame is unsurprisingly not winning any awards for the musical’s gruesomely predicable narrative, punctuated as it is by dialogue even more painfully corny than that of my arch-nemesis Wicked. The curtains open upon a handful of hopeful New York teens praying to be accepted into the ‘High School of Performing Arts’; “I pray I make P.A.” they coo while a confused audience tries to decipher why the job of personal assistant is suddenly so in demand amongst this group of Bronx upstarts. Once accepted, a relationship rapidly blossoms between fiery and ambitious Carmen and shy pianist Schlomo. Bad-boy rapper Tyrone and goody two-shoes ballerina Iris go about exploring their love, while Nick the thwarted thespian holds off the advances of lovesick Serena Katz. All this may sound pretty exciting, but it’s actually incredibly yawnsome and banal – think of the films Step Up, Step Up 2: the Streets, StreetDance, Honey and thousands of others crammed into one two hour stage show. And then there are the songs. While it was well performed in this production, Miss Sherman’s “These are My Children” in particular is an appallingly melodramatic, miserable, turkey of a song that warrants burning at the stake.
In terms of its script, Fame has just two saving graces. Firstly it is actually pretty funny in places, thanks largely to brilliantly obnoxious Joe Vegas, played by Michael Forde, (who wise-cracks his way through the performance with songs about erections (“Can’t Keep it Down”), poor Shakespearean etiquette, and sassy Mabel Washington who struggles interminably with a love of food. Secondly there is an unmistakeable dark undercurrent to what is a light-hearted romp through memorable tunes, which lends it a rather sombre edge. While many people merely view Fame as a certain music club TV show’s legwarmer-sporting older sister, have you ever seen an episode of Glee that tackles drugs-related death and the serious exploitation of vulnerable teens?
DULOG’s cast triumphed in drawing out both of these aspects; no first-night nerves were in evidence in a performance that exhibited bold panache and impeccable comic timing. Serena (the consistently exceptional Nat Goodwin) and Joe (Michael Forde) were delightfully funny and genuine, while the tragic figure Carmen (Hannah Howie) beautifully revealed an acute tenderness and vulnerability that gave hint to the darker side of a life in the spotlight. The three main couples showed brilliant dedication in creating an authentic, credible chemistry among themselves that bared their emotions to the world, and moments of tender intimacy were judged to perfection.
And this is all without even mentioning either the singing or dancing. I have seen a couple of DULOG’s productions in the past and the astonishing vocal abilities of each and every member of the cast have never failed to impress me – Fame pulled out all the stops to forge something of near professional standard. Tricky rondo tunes were dispatched with ease; ensemble numbers were effortless and smooth yet deceptively tight in their delivery; and the sheer volume of Howie’s remarkable pipes pretty much brought the house down. And the energy – oh, the energy of it all. Powerful, vigorous, perfectly choreographed dances (bravo, Frances Teehan) were outstanding and varied in style, but united in enthusiasm and quality. This is a sexy musical, and from the very first number to the pyrotechnic-fuelled climax the atmosphere was utterly electric, filling the Gala’s shallow hall with colour and noise. Most important of all, everything was done with a smile, both in a literal and a figurative sense – the cast were totally sure of themselves at every turn, allowing for a boldness and sense of enjoyment that is quite unrivalled in student theatre productions and which appears to be DULOG’s trump card year upon year.
It would be lying to say it was flawless. The band, although a brilliant fit, were overly loud at times and occasionally imposed themselves too heavily on the chorus numbers. Oddly enough, certain actors appeared to stiffen up a bit as the production went on and could do with loosening themselves for the task a bit better. But the bottom line is that if you paid a premium for a ticket for this production anticipating a performance by professional musical actors, you would not leave feeling short changed. Energy, power, great dancing and catchy tunes – the ideal antidote to the January blues.
And I don’t even like musicals.
Despite the recent snow and January blues, the concept of going to see a musical really had me excited. Durham University Light Opera Group’s production of the hit-80s musical Fame is showing in Durham until Saturday night. I hoped it would be just the ticket to brush off the winter chills.
As in the film, Fame follows a group of high school students at a Performing Arts school through the highs and lows of both their academic and social lives, which DULOG claimed would combine ‘unforgettable vocal numbers with high energy choreography’. And, on the whole, they stuck to their promise.
The production did have several truly brilliant moments; with particular highlights being Can’t Keep It Down, which demonstrated the cast’s comedic side, (and quite frankly had several people on my row in stiches). In L.A saw DULOG President, Hannah Howie, bring out a much softer side to the musical. The audience really felt for her character after phony ‘agents’ had manipulated her. Indeed it was Howie’s performance that stole the show, climbing atop a New York taxi as the curtain fell – even if it meant that other strong numbers, such as I Want To Make Magic and Let’s Play A Love Scene, were left in her shadow.
Yet, the performance was not without its flaws. Occasional weaker vocal numbers such as These Are My Children and Tyrone’s Rap, combined with almost painfully slow set changes, did disrupt the flow of the overall experience. Similarly, although the choreography offered some really lovely touches such as the ballet solo during Teacher’s Argument, much of the blocking on stage seemed awkward and quite unnatural.
The cast also experienced their fair share of first night jitters, with rather clumsy errors that occasionally spoilt the effect of the choreography in ensemble numbers. In one case a cast member found himself dancing without a partner and was forced to dance the rest of the routine rather desperately by himself, whilst the others continued with pair work.
Issues in the balance of sound between the actors and the band were also unfortunate; microphones were either so loud that they distorted the sound of some of the vocals, such as in Think of Meryl Streep, or so quiet that there were occasional problems with diction, as in Teacher’s Argument, and proved to be a real shame.
However, despite the little flaws, DULOG’s production of Fame certainly succeeds as a highly enjoyable and well-rounded experience which I would certainly recommend. For one thing, all of those legwarmers and jazz hands did enough to put a smile on my face and take the edge off the cold.
FAME showed in The Gala Theatre between 22nd and 26th January 2013.