Fame may not live forever, but so far it's still breathing. The musical, based on the film and television show of the '80s, follows students of New York's High School of Performing Arts from freshman year through graduation. They are the last class to graduate before the school combined with the High School of Music and Art and became LaGuardia High School. The school is based on fact. The rest of the show is pure fiction, and very formulaic fiction at that.
The featured students in Fame, the Musical are mostly pigeon-holed stereotypes and it's simple to tell how each will fare by the end of the show. We have the angry black, street kid who can't read (Tyrone Jackson, played by James T. Lane); the firey Latin girl with big ambitions, a big voice, and a drug problem (Carmen Diaz, played by Caren Lyn Manuel); the hardworking Jewish violinist who really wants to play rock music (Schlomo Metzenbaum, played by Carl Tramon); and we have the obligatory "fat girl" with the gorgeous voice who just can't resist food (Mabel Washington, played by Wandah Kay). More typical than stereotypical, there's also the star of commercials who has a big secret (or has he?) and the shy girl who has a crush on him; and the class clown. The young actors literally run on and off the stage as the focus goes from a snippet of one character to a snippet of another, never staying on anyone long enough to provide any depth at all.
But Fame is not a deep dramatic play - it's a musical. It would be forgivable if the music and dancing made up for the lack of story. But the songs are hit or miss. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the audience when the title song is final presented (led by Ms. Manuel), but I can only imagine how much more impressive it would have been had we been able to hear Wandah Kay belt that song. Her solo number was the less than satisfying "Mabel's Prayer", a gospel tune that doesn't quite go far enough. The biggest miss in the song list is "Can't Keep it Down", Joe "José" Vegas' (class clown, played by José Restrepo) ode to his peristent erection. Yes, that's what I said.
The cast does include some promising performers. The afore mentioned Wandah Kay overplays the broad humor of her character, but sings beautifully. Carl Tramon is one of the actors who plays an instrument on stage - and he's quite a talented violinist. Jennifer Gamatese (Serena, the girl with the crush on the boy with the possible secret) is too convincingly mousy until she opens up with "Think of Meryl Streep", surprisingly evoking a young Carolee Carmello. Jessica Cohen, as Iris the ballerina, gives us a hint of a lovely dancer. The two male teachers are virtually wasted in this show, but the two female teachers (played by Regina Le Vert and Jennifer Simser) provide a pleasant break from adolescence with a couple of songs.
The set was versatile and appropriately urban, though confusingly dilapidated (well, confusing until one finds out that the school is about to move to a new building). Some costumes were as stereotypical as the characters who wore them, and some were appropriately "eighties". One costuming concept was ridiculously ineffective - apparently someone thought it would make Wandah Kay look fat if she pulled the waistband of her baggy skirts and pants all the way up to her bust. It simply made her look incredibly short-waisted.
After the curtain call the cast did a rousing encore of the title song (written before the musical existed, by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore) which reminded all of us of the energy of youth - the kids really try hard in this show, but their efforts can't make a show out of thin air.
Fame, the Musical presented by Richard Martini, Adam Spiegel, Ronald Andrew, All Spivak, and Albert Nocciolino. Conceived and Developed by David De Silva. Original Director and Choreographer Lars Bethke. Book by José Fernandez. Lyrics by Jacques Levy. Music by Steve Margoshes. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler and Steve Margoshes. Scenic Design by Norbert U. Kolb. Costume Design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting Design by Richard Winkler. Sound Design by Christopher "Kit" Bond. Musical Director Eric Barnes.
Featuring Deanna Aguinaga, Enrique Brown, Jessica Cohen, Jessica Lindsay Cohen, Dinah Foddril, Jennifer Gambatese, Christopher J. Hanke, Gabriel Jarret, Wandah Kay, James T. Lane, Regina Le Vert, Lindsey Lopez, Caren Lyn Manual, Jack Milo, Darius Nichols, Tera-Lee Pollin, José Restrepo, Deon Ridley, Danita Salamida, Dan Shaheen, Jennifer Simser, Dan Sutcliffe, Joe Tarwater, Carl Tramon, Devon Tullock, Andrew Turteltaub, Erika Weber, Jason Weston, Spiff Wiegand, and Jeni C. Wilson.
Runs through February 25 at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. Tickets can be purchased at the Benedum Box Office, or by phone at (412)456-6666.