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REVIEW: Fame - The Musical at Sunderland Empire

"You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying in sweat."

Fame - The Musical 
Sunderland Empire
Until Saturday 13th April 2019

Book: José Fernandez
Music: Steve Margoshes
Lyrics: Jacques Levy

Tickets available from #Ad

The 30th anniversary tour of Fame The Musical, starring TV star Jorgie Porter, soul legend Mica Paris and theatre star Keith Jack arrives at the Sunderland Empire this week.

Producers Sell A Door state that they “principally aim to engage young and adult audiences, along with first-time attendees, encouraging the next generation of theatre goers by providing dynamic and diverse productions.” Judging by the large number of teenagers congregating around the Dress Circle bar before the start of the show Fame is attracting such an audience. This must be a positive as, in an era of streaming entertainment, a new generation is introduced to live performance.

Fame began life when David De Silva had produced the 1980 film, directed by Alan Parker, about students at New York City's High School of Performing Arts. For my generation, theme song aside, our introduction was the day-glo lycra covered, leg warming wearing stars from the Kids From Fame albums and television series. It was quite a surprise when my parents rented a video recorder and I finally got to see the original film. It was a much darker production – at times literally as the corridors were not well lit. The issues that the students were much more adult than the tv show but I loved it.

The musical lies somewhere in between the film and the television series in its feel. A set made up of two walls of year book photos, which become individually lit up from time to time, result in a frequently bright set design. The cast play instruments and dance their way through the story from audition to graduation. The show looks really good. However, there are some dark themes of diet, sex and drugs that occasionally pop up in the story, acting as reminders of the broader life beyond the action within the confines of the school itself.

There have been numerous tours of Fame The Musical. The last time we saw it was in 2014 and there had been an attempt to update it. It is with some relief to see that this 2019 production firmly returns the show to the original 1980-84. After the brief audition scene, the hopefuls await letters sent by snail mail in order to find out if they have a place rather than waiting for a text on their mobile phones.

There is some effort in the story to introduce a large number of characters, each with their own talent and individual hang-ups. This leaves the audience with a lot of stories to follow but director Nick Winston just about manages it without leaving the audience confused.

We are introduced to Iris (Jorgie Porter) who arrives in a big posh car but, like many of the students, is putting on a front as she concentrates on her ballet. Mabel (Hayley Johnson) is another dancer but she has issues with her “see diet” (as in she sees food and eats it). Tyrone (Jamal Crawford) is a raw talent as a dancer but he seems reluctant to hand in his book reports.

Schlomo (Simon Anthony) forms a band with drummer Lambchops (Louisa Beadel) and in doing so he becomes the musician that grows in confidence through performing arts. Carmen (Stephanie Rojas) is a complex character who shows empathy with her relationships but she is also at the centre of the darker moments in the musical.

Joe Vegas is the class clown, resulting in actor Albey Brookes having a large share of the funniest lines in the script. Fellow drama students Nick (Keith Jack) and Serena (Molly McGuire) take their craft very seriously which acts as balance to the clown Joe. Keith Jack also gets one of the big early numbers with his rendition of “I Want to Make Magic”.

Whilst the action is very much focussed on the students, the vocation of the teachers comes through too. Miss Sherman (Mica Paris) and Miss Bell (Katie Warsop) make regular appearances. They represent the clash between the academic and the performance elements of the school including the act one closing stand off between the two members of staff. Mica Paris though shows off the fair side of the often harsh English teacher during the big second act number “These Are My Children”, which is a real show highlight.  Also appearing are music teacher Mr Scheinkpof (Duncan Smith), who prefers classical to rock and roll, and drama teacher Mr Myers (Cameron Johnson) who frequently repeats the mantra that the students need to find themselves before they can act as someone else.

That’s a lot of characters, but they tend to be in 3 sub-plots (the drama, the musicians and the dancers) making it easier to follow.

The original film gets mentioned a few times – I loved the reference to how the kids have seen the film and assume they’re going to live forever and dance on top of cars! This was a nice touch.

Fame The Musical is a vibrant show full of singing, dancing and a dose of pathos. There is a sense of energy from the dancing. Having some of the instruments played on stage helps with the live feel of the show.  The rest of live band, under Musical Director Tim Whiting, provided a tight accompaniment to the action. This is a well paced show that was clearly going down well with the audience who needed little encouragement to get on their feet for the final song – who can resit Mica Paris singing Fame?

Review: Stephen Oliver

Tickets available in person at the Box Office on High Street West or online from our affiliates ATG Tickets at #Ad

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