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FAME the Musical

Music by Steven Margoshes. Lyrics by Jaques Levy. Book by Jose Fernandez. Based on a concept by David DeSilva.
society/company: Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association (CODA)

performance date: 28 Oct 2011
venue: Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)
31 Oct 2011

Despite the early 80s being ‘my’ era – I turned fourteen in 1980 – the great FAME phenomenon seemed to somewhat pass me by. I was much more into the whole 2-Tone scene following the likes of Madness (roll on the next Our House review!). However, I can remember my older sister avidly tuning in for her weekly fix of New York’s High School of Performing Arts and its regular performers such as Bruno, Leroy, Doris and co... all long before today’s teenage sing-along Glee was even a twinkle in Fox TV’s eye.

The success of the 1980 film followed by its even more successful TV spin-off which ran for six series took the world by storm, and the transition to the stage in 1988 was only a matter of time. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why the characters, which had become household names by the end of the 80s, didn’t also make the leap into musical theatre; no doubt the result of demands over rights and usage permissions. Our dear American cousins do love their names appearing in the credits – and being paid for it!

Instead, FAME the Musical features an original song list and some pretty ‘similar’ characters to those we had come to love on TV, such as Tyrone Jackson – instead of Leroy Johnson, the troubled but super-talented dancer from The Bronx; Schlomo Metzenbaum instead of Bruno Martelli, the talented musician-songwriter; Carmen Diaz instead of (Irene Cara’s) Coco Hernandez, the actress who makes some bad choices in her quest for stardom; and Jose Vegas instead of Ralph 'Raul' Garcia, the actor who turns stand-up comedian... to name just four.

An amateur society takes on all sorts of challenges with this show, none more so than in the casting. Not only must you source trained dancers (including ballet), singers and musicians to meet the cast list’s specific criteria, your chosen few also need to be able to act, an attribute which can be quite rare with musical theatre performers. Add to that the need to include a chorus full of the energy and character fitting to that of an American performing arts school and one could be excused for giving up at the drawing board stage - CODA’s (Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association) production, which was apparently ‘thrown’ together in just 6-7 weeks, not only adequately achieved the long list of essentials... it was simply sensational!

In a brilliantly cast show, director Vicky Watkins didn’t have a single weak link of the fourteen principals and twenty-one-strong ensemble onstage - which of course makes the task of picking any stand-out performances all the more difficult. However, not wishing to buck the reviewing trend and disappoint Croydon’s faithful I’ll have a go...

Dominic Binefa, as Jose Vegas, is a born performer and obviously revelled in his character; confident, funny and scene-stealing... as well as singing the show’s funniest number: Can’t Keep it Down. Paul Grace, as trainee actor Nick Piazza, boasted a very strong and appealing vocal as well as the ability to perform gymnastics and back-flips across the stage. Mitchell Laban, as moody Tyrone Jackson, brought his Britain’s Got Talent-style street-dancing hip-hop to the party which the audience lapped up in several numbers. Charlotte Story (ballet dancer Iris Kelly), Chrissy Quinn (shy actress Serena Katz) and Shonagh Louise-Johnstone (food-loving Mabel Washington on the ‘Seafood’ diet – “I see food, and I eat it!”) all added to the show’s impact but it was arguably Beci Sageman’s beautiful but tragic Carmen Diaz, the young actress destined to have her drug-fuelled life cut short, who deserves top honours – and ironically got to lead the company singing “I’m gonna live forever” in a thrilling, rip-roaring and thumping (standing ovation) finale with the show’s title song, thankfully salvaged from the original film – Fame.

Plaudits also go to the show’s remaining principals including the teaching staff quartet; Sasha Cherry (in a larger-than-life wig) as Miss Sherman gives a nice turn showing a teacher that is not as tough as she looks, singing These Are My Children.

But this show is so much about the music and dancing. James Beal, the show’s MD, produced a near-perfect sound from his seven-piece band, nicely balanced against the performers’ unobtrusive head-mics. The twenty musical numbers are interesting, well-written and also well-integrated into the production with great use of various reprises.

Sam Vincent's clever lighting design further added to the production's star quality including wonderful use of gauze back-lighting especially in Carmen's tragic number In L.A. which highlighted the not so glamourous side of Hollywood.

I don’t know how Natasha Farrant managed to choreograph the show to such a high standard in six weeks but she deserves a medal. With assistant Paul Cohen they performed not far short of a miracle – and it just goes to show what can be achieved by such a positive company. More please!

 

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