DULOG’s production of Fame, which was running in the Gala Theatre last week, was an entertaining, energetic show which I thoroughly enjoyed. I went to see the Wednesday night performance. For the uninitiated, Fame follows a group of students during their time at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, or ‘PA’ for short. The musical is set after the film, and so contains a completely different cast and songs (apart from the eponymous number which is in both).
In shows like Fame which have an ensemble cast it can sometimes be hard to present fully fleshed-out characters in the time available, but this wasn’t really a problem in this production. The actors managed to convey the essential elements of their characters from the outset which made it much easier to keep track of exactly who they all were and to empathise with their situations. I was especially impressed by Carmen (Hannah Howie), a feisty starlet obsessed with becoming famous, and Tyrone (Alex Wingfield), a headstrong dancer who doesn’t appreciate the academic commitments required at PA. I also thought that Ben Gitten’s performance as Schlomo was very impressive: the progression of his character from a nervous boy in the shadow of his family’s musical heritage to a maturing musician was convincing.
The show was surprisingly funny, more so than the film. Michael Forde was absolutely brilliant as Joe, especially during an acting class scene in the first act, where instead of talking about emotional reactions to physical stimuli, he leads the cast in a slightly childish but nevertheless hilarious song about his physical reaction to Carmen, called “Can’t Keep it Down”. Most of the laughs came from scenes with Joe but some of the other characters also contributed some funny lines. One example I remember is the scene when, after a year of infatuation, Serena (Natalie Goodwin) ends up mistakenly believing that the object of her affection, Nick (John Muething), an exceedingly serious actor, is gay.
The music was good throughout; both the band and the cast put in good performances. While some members of the cast were undoubtedly better singers than others, the ensemble during the chorus songs was always consistent and balanced. I enjoyed the chorus number “Hard Work”, and Goodwin’s performances were consistently affecting, especially “Let’s Play a Love Scene”. However, my favourite performance came from Howie; her rendition of “In L.A.“, a song about the sometimes harsh realities of trying to make it in Hollywood, was beautifully sung and utterly heart-breaking. As for the band, although Fame’s music is not among my favourite, they pulled it off convincingly; the trumpet and saxophone solos at various points were effective and the piano playing was pretty flawless. There were sometimes a few problems with the band being a bit loud though: a few times what the actors were saying was completely drowned out. During the song “Teacher’s Argument”, in which Dance teacher Miss Bell (Izzy Talks) and English teacher Mrs Sherman (Hannah Cope) disagree about the importance of Tyrone’s academic performance, it was almost impossible to make out exactly what they were saying, but the general theme of the song still came across.
Director Julia Loveless didn’t make any drastic changes, although there were plenty of nice touches throughout the show. I really enjoyed the part of the opening scene when the students are on the train going to PA for their auditions. The actors simulated the hustle and bustle of a New York subway train on stage, all without any props (choreographer Frances Teehan was probably responsible for the success of this scene as well). I think that the technical team also deserve a mention; the show contained the most sophisticated lighting I’ve seen at a Durham student production. There were multiple spotlights and even some pyrotechnics at the end of the show. Although there was only one set it was used well, however I thought it was odd that a full size taxi prop brought on for the encore wasn’t used at any other point.
The thing which most impressed me about the show was the dancing. Fame is a very dance-heavy musical, which made the consistently high standard of dancing all the more impressive. It was obvious that everyone in the cast must have worked hard on this as I didn’t spot any weak dancers at all. The show includes everything from hip-hop dancing to ballet; I think my favourite dance was the Latin number which opened the second act. The cast’s singing abilities didn’t seem to suffer during or after the dances, which is no mean feat, considering how tiring some of them looked.
All in all, I enjoyed Fame and will probably be going to more DULOG productions in the future.