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Fame: The Musical directed by Tim Larson, produced by LaTonya Turner final performances this weekend.


Cast of Circle Players Fame The MusicalAugust 7, 2009
By Jonathan Pinkerton

I for one was thrilled when I learned that Circle Players , one of the oldest local theatre companies in Middle Tennessee, would be kicking off its 60th season by mounting the Nashville premiere production of Fame: The Musical , which concludes its run with two final performances this weekend, Friday, August 7 & Saturday, August 8 at the Looby Theatre located on Rosa Parks Blvd. across the street from Metro Center.

As a kid, I never missed an episode of the 80s musical drama, Fame , a TV series based on the Oscar winning (for Original Music Score) film that explored the four years of high school life of a group of talented hopefuls attending New York's High School for the Performing Arts. Being an artistic kid growing up in the rural south, I remember thinking how cool it must be to go to a school that focuses on creativity and talent rather than sports.

Of his own high school experience, director Tim Larson said, "I was very involved in the arts in high school in a small town in Kentucky." He went on to admit, "Sometimes it was hard on me especially being more of an athletic school, but I did not steer away from my passion."

That reference to passion immediately reminded me of Lydia Grant , the dance teacher portrayed by Debbie Allen in the film and series. I was also reminded of several teachers of my own, my English teacher and creative writing sponsor, Ms. Gregg ; my art teacher,  Mrs. Pendergrass and Mr. Huck , another English teacher who directed our school plays. As a high school kid, they were my Fame teachers, the teachers that encouraged and inspired my creativity as a writer and an artist. I asked TIm who his Fame teachers were. "Oddly enough, an English whose name I have forgotten (I think it was Mrs. Strunk ), was also the drama teacher and was very instrumental in moving me in the direction of my passion."

The series, which debuted on NBC in 1982, moved from network to first-run syndication and ended in 1987. I asked both Tim and Circle Players VP, LaTonya Turner , who has taken on the role of producer for Fame: The Musical , if they were fans of the movie and series. LaTonya, whose name Nashvillians will no doubt recognize as a former news reporter for Channel 4, revealed, "I was a huge fan of the original movie.  It came along as I was coming of age and I loved the music ( Body Electric, Out Here on My Own, and Fame of course), and the raw, realness of it.  As an African-American girl, I was also excited by the diversity of the cast and seeing some actors I had been following (like Irene Cara and Debbie Allen ) get more national acclaim." 

Tim recalled, "I was very much a fan of the movie in fact the night I saw it was during the time I had 15 dance students at a dance camp in Atlanta Georgia, and we all went to see it. Of course afterwards I did not realize the adult content that was in the show and thought I might get in trouble by some of the parents, but I did not. I guess they knew they were is good hands. I did not get to see the television series much because I was running two dance schools and a community theatre and my nights were pretty much full. But when I did see it I really enjoyed it."

Perhaps taking a cue from Fame 's theme song lyrics, "I'm gonna live forever," the film's producer, David De Silva , who had worked as creative producer on the series, initially mounted Fame: The Musical in 1988. This re-telling features a new class of student hopefuls, but there are definite similarities between the cast of the musical and its predecessors. Instead of wannabe star/casting couch victim Coco , we get wannabe star/drug addicted Carmen , instead of angry and illiterate dancer LeRoy , we get angry dyslexic dancer Jack . One character from the series, a stern but ultimately caring teacher, Miss Sherwood seems to have made the easiest transition from screen to stage in the persona of Mrs. Sherman.

Tim seemed to agree with me on that point, stating, " Miss Sherman 's character is probably the closest to the character in the movie, but even the secondary characters all have movie counterparts, just written different. I think it is awesome that they did not try to copy the movie and make it their own. In fact, David Da Silva, always wanted to bring Fame to the stage prior to the movie, but it never worked out that way."

Different characters, yes, but the feeling of the original is still very much present. I enjoyed the little wink and nod acknowledging the movie within lines of the play spoken by Mrs. Sherman who says early on, "If you think you're gonna live forever and that you'll be running into the streets dancing on top of cars, this isn't the movie." This of course is a reference to the infamous scene in the movie when the theme song is performed while the students do just what she described.

Much like the movie, however, the play takes place in a four year period following the students from freshman year on through to graduation. Of the differences between the movie and the play, Tim said, "The story is a lot like the movie but written for the stage where it is harder to imply a passage of time and space as the movie conveyed."

Enough about the differences between the movie, TV show and the musical itself. I was fortunate enough to attend both the final dress rehearsal and a performance last night of Circle Players production, and overall the show is enjoyable. I loved the fact that the high school cast is made up of age appropriate actors, rather than a bunch of late 20s and 30 year-olds playing teens, like the original Beverly Hills 90210. 

Among those in Circle Players' cast, Faith Kelm , a student at Brentwood Academy and a dance teacher herself, turns in a strong lead performance as Carmen . Caleb Reynolds as Jack possesses just the right mix of tough guy cockiness and sensitive artist. Hanna McGinley , who plays love struck Serena  has by far, the strongest vocal ability of the younger cast members. Tyler Ashley who plays Nick , presented himself in a way that had all the young girls in the audience crushing as if they were watching that Efron kid from that other high school musical. Julia Nettles as Mabel was the show's scene stealer, thanks in part to some fun lines and her ability to deliver them. Trey Palmer as the over the top Joe Vegas took a little time to get used to, but by the end of the first act, I was sold. He plays the class clown to the hilt. Darin Richardson as Schlomo was the sweet kid everyone likes. Chelsea Hough , as seemingly spoiled Iris turned in the strongest dance performance of the show.

As for the faculty, LaToya Gardner as Ms. Greta Bell , the dance teacher (i.e., the Lydia Grant / Debbie Allen role) has, hands down, the best voice of the faculty cast. Gardner's duet,  The Teachers' Argument , with Cat Eberwine as Miss Sherman is the highlight of the first act. Not only because it is a well written number to begin with, but because of the staging and choreography choices made by Larson and choreographer, Kate Adams Johnson , who incidentally worked with the play's creator De Silva as she was cast in the role of Iris when the show was workshopped in 1994 before its Broadway debut. When asked what he thought was the show stopper in Circle Players production, Tim agreed, "There are many and my favorite is ever changing but in our production I think it is the Teachers Argument , not only because of the music and the dramatic way that LaToya and Cat perform it, but because the way it is staged (not giving that away)"

While The Teachers' Argument was the strongest number, sadly the theme song was probably one of the weakest. There is hardly anyone around who doesn't know the words, "Baby look at me/and tell me what you see/You ain't seen the best of me yet/Give me time/I'll make you forget the rest." I would have thought the song would have been more energetic, but there was something missing.

Another downfall of Circle's production comes in some very minor details: props, wardrobe and dialect. There is a scene where one of the boys is teased for having a porn magazine. They open his backpack and pull out a copy of Maxim Magazine , which wasn't published until 1995. Now, I realize I am being picky, but couldn't the prop master color copy a Playboy cover from the early 80s and put it over the Maxim magazine? Other picky continuity issues came in the form of some of the wardrobe. While I absolutely loved that Tyler was wearing a maroon Member's Only jacket in the opening scene, I was distracted by a few of the other wardrobe choices, notably, the decidedly current graphic print hoodie worn by Caleb in later scenes, and an Ed Hardy -looking mini t-shirt dress worn by Faith. Heck, I even noticed a book bag with an iPod pocket and a bag with a recycle logo on it, these were just out of place in a show set in the early 80s.

As for the accents, I am a firm believer that if you can't do a good accent, it's better to not do one at all. Carmen, Joe and Ms. Sheinkopf ( Mary Corby ) gave their accents a valiant effort, but they were not consistent, and came across as stereotypical parodies when they weren't fading in and out.  Those in attendance with me last night commented that they didn't realize Ms. Sheinkopf even had an accent until her third scene. I think that was in part due to some technical glitch during the opening act where her mic was apparently not on.

With more than 20 cast members, I was absolutely impressed with the staging and choreography.  I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of styles of dance Kate was able to incorporate into the show.  You get everything from classical ballet to modern and street moves.  I will admit though that some of the choreography seemed a bit forced, such as the seemingly Riverdance ( first appearance 1994) and Stomp (first appearance 1991) inspired numbers, it was the odd inclusion of members from Nashville's Music City Salsa dance troupe that really threw me. Don't get me wrong, they are amazing dancers, but the lead male dancer, who first appeared dressed as a gym teacher just didn't work in the context of the play. Do they even have gym class in the School for Performing Arts? That said, overall Circle Players Fame is a fun and entertaining trip down memory lane for anyone who grew up in the days of leg warmers and popped collars.

Something else worth mentioning, Circle Players itself is a non profit theatre company that has survived for 60 season through the generosity of its community.  With Fame, Circle is taking an opportunity to return the favor, as a portion of the Thursday night performances will benefit Oasis Center.  How fitting that Oasis Center is a local not for profit organization that helps teens in crisis.  My dear friend Kate Haygood works with Oasis Center and she and Circle's Turner know each other having previously served on the board for yet another service organization, Nashville Cares.  LaTona mirrored my thoughts about the two organizations coming together when she said, "I think it's appropriate to collaborate with another non-profit that works to address many of the issues and challenges of youth that are themes in Fame . To me, it's important for service organizations to support each other when their missions are similar or overlap, especially during tough economic times--and hopefully we are exposing different communities of people to each other's good work."

When LaTonya mentioned challenges, I couldn't help but wondered what the challenges were when adapting what seems like such a large show on a relatively small space, like the Looby Theatre , and doing so so seamlessly.  Considering the fact that most of the cast is onstage most of the time, the flow of action is quite impressive, the crowd seems natural given the circumstances of a large school.  Like a well choreographed dance itself, the direction and staging of Fame was fluid and came across so succinctly that the audience most likely takes it for granted.  Tim shared the following, "With all musicals limited stage size can be challenging, but our rehearsal space has a stage that is built to the size of the stage we perform on. We also construct our sets at the rehearsal space, therefore it makes it easier to be able to set your staging and choreography to that space so when you get to the theatre very little re-staging needs to occur. In fact with Fame we were amazed that during our first run-through in the theatre we stopped very little if any to re-stage or space people." He also praised his choreographer when he added, "Kate also does and excellent job at layering her choreography so that everyone is not doing the same thing at the same time, which utilizes space much differently and makes it much more interesting as a visual."

Circle Players is mounting Fame just weeks before the new film version hits movie theatres in September.  I asked LaTonya if they were aware of the upcoming feature film when they picked Fame to open Circle Players 60th season. LaTonya confirmed it was indeed just coincidence when she said, "Although the movie remake was in the works, it hadn't received a lot of publicity back in the late winter/spring and did not influence Circle Players decision." She elaborated, "In fact, we were into pre-production planning before several of us on the creative team became aware of the upcoming release of the new movie."

When I asked LaTonya what it was like to be behind the scenes, as opposed to in front of the camera, she admitted, "I've been surprised by the similarities between producing for television news or documentaries and producing for theatre--digging for information and resources, anticipating needs, thinking about the big picture, managing budgets, collaborating with others involved in the project or production." She elaborated, "In theatre, producers don't write the script or copy like many do in TV; but you contribute greatly to implementing the vision of the writer and director."

To that end, LaTonya was quick to plug Circle Players next show. Noises Off , directed by Patrick Kramer , who coincidentally was in the audience of last night's show, and who I have had the pleasure of seeing in a number of productions at Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre .   Noises Off will run October 16 through November 1, 200

With her VP hat firmly in place, LaTonya also reminded me of the fantastic deal Circle Players offers for season tickets. "The season ticket allows you to attend any four shows of your choosing for less than what it would cost if you bought an individual ticket for each performance. It's about a 20% savings. You can use the all four passes for the same production or spread them out over the season. Some Circle patrons buy several Season Flex Passes and just use those instead of individual tickets."

Again, Fame ends its run with two remaining performances this weekend, and after seeing Circle Players production, there's no doubt in my mind that Circle Players, currently celebrating its 60th season is gonna live forever.


 

 

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