All-City Musical students in Cleveland perform 'Fame'
The kids who attend the fictional performing arts high school in "Fame: the Musical" are so full of talent, they spend lunch hours turning a sidewalk into a stage.
In the musical's high-energy number "Dancing on the Sidewalks," the students wiggle, run and high-kick on a staircase that's spinning in its own choreography.
In a gasp-inducing move Tyrone, played by Cleveland School of the Arts student Nehemiah Spencer, puts one foot on each set of stairs. As the dancers push the stairs apart, Spencer sinks into a full split.
Ow. And, wow.
After staging 10 All-City Musicals, the program has climbed to a point where it has the muscle to mount a demanding show like "Fame: The Musical." It requires a cast full of what theater folk call "triple threats" -- performers who can act, sing and dance.
"Fame: The Musical" runs Friday through Sunday at the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. It is a co-production between the Cleveland School District and Great Lakes Theater Festival.
"I didn't realize how challenging the music is," said director Tony Sias. "It's so intricate. They've done an incredible job."
About 85 percent of the cast are also in the All-City Arts Program, which offers training in dance, vocal and instrumental music and videography, Sias said.
"This ensures kids come to the table with skills," he said.
The All-City Musical draws students from throughout the district. This year's cast of 45 students comes from 10 high schools and one middle school.
The play follows a group of talented students at a school for the performing arts. They include Carmen Diaz (Imaris Rivera), a young diva wooed by the false glamour of stardom. She falls in love with music student Schlomo (Christian Townsend) until her drug use pulls them apart. Dynamic dance student Tyrone (Spencer) struggles to hide the fact that he is dyslexic. His poor academics may derail his dreams of becoming a professional dancer. (Some character names are changed from the 1980s movie and television show.)
Sias said he was delighted to cast Imaris, a Latina and John Hay High School freshman, to play a Latina.
"She has the chops. She is incredible as a vocalist," he said.
Imaris has struggled to put her natural shyness aside to play Carmen's diva-like confidence. "It's just not me," Imaris said.
The role also calls for a lot of dancing, another thing that is not her strong suit. She's learning ballet terms, or as she puts it, "all those French words I don't understand."
But Imaris, 14, commands attention in the signature "Fame" scene ("There She Goes"), in which she sings -- in English and Spanish-- about Carmen's desire to be desired by adoring crowds.
"It's a lot of pressure," said Imaris, who is on track to graduate in three years. "But I've got all my friends here who are like family. They push me to do better."
While Imaris plans to have a career as a veterinarian and pursue theater as a hobby, Spencer is committed to dance. The 19-year-old Cleveland School of the Arts senior will major in dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. This spring, he missed "Fame" rehearsals because he was performing in a spring concert with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
In "Fame," he's learning to sing and perform the Broadway style of dance.
"It's a new field I have to crack, and I enjoy it," he said.
Spencer often watched the television series "Fame" and drew inspiration from the character of Leroy, the streetwise kid bursting with raw talent. Now he's playing that character, called Tyrone.
"We're both strong male dancers in the big world of dance," Spencer said.
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