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|A CurtainUp Review
Fame On 42nd Street
By Brad Bradley
While the opening song, "Pray I Make P.A" set in 1980 and sung by hopeful freshman students to New York's High School of Performing Arts in a series of isolated spotlights, does start with repetitive and monotonous utterances, this lackluster device in no way reflects the sparkling show to follow. Dynamite explodes by song's end, and never lets up until after the last note the post-bows finale a little more than two hours later.
Director Drew Scott Harris has assembled a wonderful cast, and works his ensemble hard; the actors' tasks include the moving of sets and props to maintain the show's brisk, even driving pace, and Swedish choreographer Lars Bethke keeps the company virtually airborne in exhilarating dances.
This remarkable cast of 22 (18 students and four teachers) is truly an ensemble, with even the chorus members having ample opportunity to shine. The entire cast is appealing, certainly including the two most troubled teens as beautifully played by Shakiem Evans and Nicole Leach, both key musical resources in this Fame. Evans, playing a dancer with great talent but impoverished in his discipline and even basic academic skills, not only presents an electric dance solo, but also has honed an arc of character development that moves many to tears. Other standouts include Cheryl Freeman as an English teacher who understands the scarring of the streets, Christopher J. Hanke as an acting student with unusual professional maturity masking his uncertain social development, Dennis Moench as a precocious violinist trying to escape his famous parent's shadow, Sara Schmidt as an uncertain but determined young actress, and Michael Kary, shining even in a peripheral role as a trumpet player.
The score (excepting only the unavoidable iconic title tune written for the 1980 film and central to the six-year-long television series) is new, and quite attractive. Composer Steve Margoshes and Lyricist Jacques Levy have fashioned a collection of songs that effectively service their story and characters, and comfortably fit both the period and contemporary ears, including even manageable doses of Spanish in deference to the multi-cultural nature of the population, both onstage and in New York City in general. Highlights include "I Want to Make Magic", an actor's vocal solo counterpointed by an upstage violin lesson, "Think of Meryl Streep", a gospel-style assertion by Q. Smith as a chubby street-wise girl who rechannels her dream from dancing to acting, T"hese are My Children", Miss Sherman's riveting blues anthem, and "Let's Play a Love Scene", a touching unexpected connection that is emblematic of the genuine emotional and theatrical center of this lovable show.
Musical book writers rarely get the credit they deserve, only the blame when a show fails to work, and the late Jose Fernandez did a masterful job of balancing more than a dozen key characters into a fine stage tapestry. He unfortunately lived to see his work staged only in Stockholm in 1993, missing the extraordinary and deserved international success that a decade later finally has found its way to New York.
Although set in the intimate new Little Shubert, about half the size of the smaller Broadway musical venues, Fame has production values to burn, with a wonderful use of levels and textures in the mostly school building locations designed by Norbert U. Kolb. Paul Tazewell's sharp costumes and Ken Billington's powerhouse lighting add to the design pizzazz. Fame on 42nd Street knows its goals and achieves them. Its predictable line that "artists are special" gets full endorsement here. This sometimes crusty critic left the theater on a performance high.
Editor's Note: I was Brad's companion at the Little Shubert and I thought the show didn't deserve the putdowns the putdowns some of our fellow critics have hurled at it. Sure the characters are somewhat stereotypical, but this is offset by the enormous energy of the cast. The recent death of Michael DeSisto, head of a school for troubled teens in Stockbridge, Massachussetts, also reminded me of a smaller musical, Inappropriate (review), which had a somewhat miraculously successful run on Forty-Second Street, though in a small black box theater and without ever achieving Fame's fame as a movie-to TV series-to international franchise. -- Elyse Sommer
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