Westering High in Port Elizabeth presents an excellent staging of popular youth musical Fame.
The school has presented this musical before but the decision to revive it after 14 years is a wise one because Fame: The Musical remains a far better and more suitable vehicle for high schoolers to tackle than the even more regularly staged Grease, with its morally wrong final message.
Another clever move was the decision by co-directors Anton Steyn and Rene' Myburg to move the locale to South Africa since it obviates the need for the lead cast to maintain American accents while still recognising the obvious fact that in this late teenage group, youngsters in this country can exhibit very similar personal traits as do their US counterparts in the original hit movie.
Aside from the title song, this stage version drops the rest of the original Oscar-winning film's musical score, mostly written by Dean Pitchford, Michael and Lesley Gore, which means that such smash-hits as Out Here on My Own and I Sing the Body Electric are not heard.
Instead, each major character gets what one might call a "philosophy of life" number with the lead vocals thus balanced among the principals.
For it is, and even as a movie was, a work with no single leading lady and man. Instead, there are several main characters, all with different backgrounds, yet, by studying at a major theatre school, aiming for "Fame" in their particular performing arts discipline.
That a single PE school should be able to boast enough talent to make all these disparate young folk ring true on-stage is amazing and yet Westering has achieved just that, with all the leads showing an equal measure of ability, on the acting, movement and vocal fronts.
There is Nick (played by James Smith), who has already gained some level of TV fame, but who longs to develop his genuine acting skill, Serena (the lovely, lissom blonde Tayla Gunn), in the same acting class and smitten by the tall Nick's looks and in awe of his past achievements and his talent, and the lesser light Latino Joe (Azi Dladla), who appears to have no real showbiz aims and casually moves through life.
Among the student musicians to the fore are the quiet keyboardist and composer Schlomo (Daniel Minnie, whose looks and stage demeanour are spot on), from a dynasty of classical music stars but wanting to explore other genres, Goodman (Rudi Swanepoel), his pal who lacks Schlomo's talent but plays a mean guitar, and the pushy drummer Grace, familiarly known as Lambchops (Simone Dolley), who has more chutzpah than either of the boys whom she joins in a small combo.
Then there are the dancers, led by the cute ballet star Iris (Kelsey Jooste), dedicated to her discipline in dance, Tyrone (Licebo Vatyana), the illiterate youngster whose natural performing talents are evident but whose attitude immediately put him on a collision course with his teachers, and ever-hungry Mabel (Asanda Yaze), who maintains a seafood diet ("Every time I see food, I want to eat it!”).
This group is completed by the ill-fated Carmen (Teneille Minnie, perfectly cast looks and personality-wise), who seeks too-fast fame and, although enrolled in the dance class, really wants to sing and so joins the musical trio, as their vocalist and lyricist, only to have her life and career derailed by drug-taking.
Finally there are the teachers, Miss Sherman (Emily Snelling, playing above her years but all authority and control), the academic who sees the students as "her children", Ms Bell (Limpho Ntshudu), also dedicated to dance and thrilled to have talent like Iris to guide, Mr Meyers (Daron Gardiner), the acting :teacher trying to instil the basics of "finding yourself before you can find fame" in his charges and Ms Jones (Shelby van der Merwe) for whom music transcends anything else in life.
All of these cast members tackle their roles full on and, as guided by Myburg and Steyn, create a balanced uniformity in their portrayals - as mentioned above - that is certainly rare to see among learners in a single high school.
On the musical score side, this collection of songs (music by Steve Margoshes, lyrics by Jacques Levy) features a few gems of its own, led off by Nick's I Want to Make Magic, in which he tells the love-struck Serena of his acting aims, while, she, in turn, scores with the ballad Let's Play a Love Scene, as she confesses her love for him, and they end up duetting.
Then there is Joe, who Can't Keep It Cool, as he explains how difficult it is for him to conform, Tyrone really putting it "out there" with his rap and later telling Ms Bell and the ensemble exactly what it's like to go Dancin' on the Sidewalk, in in the process leading a routine, as staged by the Gerber/ Windvogel team, that is easily the choreographic high spot of the show, while the pair otherwise keep the ensemble moving energetically, as befits their ages and fitness levels, throughout the show in fine fashion.
Miss Sherman and Ms Bell argue heatedly in song as to what the school really requires from its students, while the former has to engender true pathos in her solo These Are My Children, which the tall Emily Snelling easily achieves.
Asanda Yaze, as Mabel, carries most of the comedy in this stage version of the musical, and lead vocal on Mabel's Prayer, with its gospel overtones, gets the second act going in just the right style before the more serious treatment of such plot resolutions as Nick and Serena's romance, Tyrone's learning problems and Carmen's eventual fate.
Using a backtracked accompaniment throughout, and aided by fine sound balance from Phillip Robinson, Salomie Minnie and Amanda Engelbrecht have coaxed terrific vocal quality from both the principals and the large ensemble of students, which reaches an absolute peak in the climactic full cast rendition of Bring On Tomorrow, as the youngsters face their uncertain showbiz futures after graduation, and the finale, which combines Hard Work (which also opens the show) with, naturally, Fame.
It is perhaps a little unfortunate that Teneille Minnie falls just a trifle short power-wise on the lead vocal when the theme is sung during the first half of the show, but that is a minor carp in a musical in which, once again, the sheer exuberance and enthusiasm on-stage definitely communicates enjoyment to the audience.
With first-rate sets and the moving thereof (the musical trio's portable stand is an excellent example and back-to-back screen switches from acting class to dance studio another), Fame; The Musical maintains this city's reputation for superior high schools' musicals and this production is well worth a visit.
Well done, Westering!
FAME, directed by Rene' Myburg and Anton Steyn, vocal direction by Amanda Engelbrecht and Salomie Minnie, choreography by Bennie Gerber and Kehly Windvogel, presented by Westering High School in the PA Blackbeard Hall at the school, August 4 at 7pm, presented with patrons at tables (bring your own refreshments and drinks). Admission R35, seat bookable at the school.
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