first night

Fame: The Musical

Felix Stevenson heads to the Gala for the spectacle of the year.

DULOG’s decision to perform Fame: The Musical as their annual show in Durham’s Gala theatre was not without merit. On the back of the recent snowy weather, the latest economic reports have suggested that the country is heading towards an unprecedented triple dip recession, and as such, a trip to the theatre for many was as much pleasure seeking, as it was remedial. Fittingly therefore, at the centre of the musical is the notion of struggle. Set in New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, Fame focuses on the school’s students and the battles they must face if they are to join the 10% of graduates who make a living from the arts. As the teenagers grapple with drugs, sex, and dyslexia, it would be easy to lose sight of the more glaringly dichotomous wrestle that is taking place, right at the very heart of the musical. Fame has both outstanding musical numbers and an expeditiously poor narrative. It is therefore testament to the production’s strength that a fight is not only put up but also – only just – won.

At the centre of all that was good about this production were the musical numbers, which boast truly the most impressive vocal sounds that you will hear on a student stage this year. MD Chris Guard must be commended for creating the exceptional music as he conducted a seemingly very talented band. While ‘Hard Work’ delivered near perfect harmonies that made many an audience member spontaneously shiver with excitement, it was the show’s number one hit, ‘Fame’, that truly made the ‘mob’ roar with approval. Having said that, it was in choosing Francis Teehan as Choreographer, and Lucy Crawford as Assistant Choreographer, that the production turned the favourable hand of having such strong musical numbers into a winning one. The dancing was, quite simply, superb. With such a large cast dancing as an ensemble to many of the musical numbers, not once did the routines become stale or uninspiring. Instead scenes such as the opening of the junior festival were colourful, energetic and stylistic just when they were supposed to be. A highly imaginative lighting design by Ophelie Labrasseur provided needed depth to many of these spectacles.
It was however the notion of depth, in a purely narrative perspective, that let the production down. The scenes of dialogue were often too short and sparse for the audience to find any real empathy with many of the characters. As such many of the emotive storylines that are implicit in the narrative fail to be fully realised. Such failures in the script make the outstanding individual performances all the more remarkable. Hannah Howie’s Carmen was electrifying and provided a much-needed anchor to the numerous characters on offer in the school. Her vocals were at times unmatched and exemplified everything a leading lady requires in such a large production. It was a shame therefore that her on-stage chemistry was fairly ‘short-lived’ with Schlomo (Ben Gittins). Gittins played his part with a maturity and control that complemented the wilder Carmen superbly. Having said that, it was the relationship between Nick (John Muething) and Serena (Nat Goodwin) that seemed the most consummated. Both Muething and Goodwin were on top of their games, toying with their respective character’s feelings and thus demanding a certain emotional connection with the audience, usually in an endearing dimension, that was so rare in the production. While Iris (Susie Cox) and Tyrone’s (Alex Wingfield) relationship may have missed some spark, both delivered in other means. Cox displayed obvious dancing ability that seemed rudimentary to her character, while Wingfield had arguably the most difficult task in playing a hip-hop dancer who struggles to read, which he did with admirable confidence. His rap was equally as impressive, and with some minor adjustments to the sound levels one might expect it to become a real hit with future audiences in the production’s run.
Nonetheless there were casualties in the lack of character development embodied in a depleted script. The teachers were the main culprits here. It beggared belief that such one-dimensional characters could invoke and inspire their students to the heights of their yearned glory, although the doting Miss Bell (Izzy Talks) was an exception in this respect.
The use of comedy, that has become a trademark Loveless (Director) feature, attempted to remedy these problems. Yet despite the best efforts of Mike Forde, who played Joe with a charisma that demanded amusement, one could not help but feel we were watching a boxing match between the production’s musical numbers and its narrative. The fact that the sheer spectacle of the performance wins over this bout speaks volumes as to the level of commendation that is required for those involved. With the onset of a ‘triple-dip’ and a snow thaw, Fame provides the obvious cure, as we dare to dream, or sing, of a brighter future.

Felix Stevenson

23 January 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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