Sometimes the main aspect of loving theatre is a sheer curiosity that takes you to a show which you wouldn’t see otherwise. FAME the Musical depicts the stories of several students who attend the High School of the Performing Arts during the 1980s. First performed in 1988, this is a musical adaptation based on the 1980 musical film of the same name, which also inspired a six-season television series.
Despite having featured in the West End seven times and this being the sixth UK Tour, I have actually never seen this show or looked into the story at all. So, when FAME the Musical announced another UK Tour which would come to Cardiff’s New Theatre, after starting in Manchester on the 20th of July 2018, I was curious, especially as it has already secured a transfer to the West End exactly this time next year, once the tour has finished. Other than hearing the title song every now and then, I was going into this show, quite rarely, completely and utterly blind story wise. Therefore, in this review, I will also be giving my impressions of the narrative as a whole as well as this production individually.
Honestly, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about this tour when the casting came out given the names attached. Arguably, the show’s lead is Carmen, a fame-obsessed dancer who falls on harder and harder times throughout the show, who is portrayed with stunning punch and vocals by Stephanie Rojas. She is supported by two other vocal powerhouses in Keith Jack, from Any Dream Will Do and the subsequent Joseph tours, plays Nick, the serious classical actor, and Mica Paris as Miss Sherman, the academic English teacher. Each of the cast had big numbers which each of them pulled off seemingly effortlessly. Rojas injected the right amount of energy into each of her big numbers whilst Jack and Paris ensured an inspirational quality to ‘I Want to Make Magic’ and ‘These Are My Children’. Although, my surprise favourite number of the show was the ‘Teacher’s Argument’ featuring Katie Warsop alongside Mica Paris, a rare argument duet where both sides are entirely arguable and inspirational in their own right.
The cast also features Jorgie Porter as Iris and Jamal Kane Crawford as Tyrone who forms the core of the representation of both ballet and street dance in this show. I am admittedly a huge ballet nerd so I was very impressed by the high level and amount of ballet in this show, whilst Crawford also demonstrated amazing stamina by quickly switching into a long number of technical street dancing. The heightened dance numbers were aided by some insanely technical lighting cues and features. The cornered set and ability to individually light each headshot in combination with several spotlights and neon lines the lighting really is something to be seen in this show. This works very well with the musical motifs throughout this show. There are onstage musicians who work both in and out of spotlights and it’s very satisfying to hear the motif of ‘Fame!’ in Serena’s dance number. Another favourite moment was a solo saxophone being incorporated with a soft lighting reveal of the dancers on the floor which was lovely to watch.
However, I will say that despite the efforts of this wonderful cast, this production did not leave me enamoured with the narrative of FAME. The musical is divided into three couples who each have the same foundations of two views concerning their shared art coming together and clashing at first, but then coming together through the relationships of those involved. The main difference between these three main storylines is that one, the differences in opinions between Nick and Serena concerning acting particular emotions, is clearly in the show only for relief from the two more serious topics covered in Tyrone and Carmen’s stories and relationships. However, this, in my opinion, really doesn’t work as the serious topics of the other two stories ensure that Nick and Serena’s story appears limp in terms of dramatic value and progress and, in combination, the inclusion of Nick and Serena’s story, and the skittish narrative structure means that the issues discussed through Tyrone and Carmen do not get the time and development needed in order to come to any satisfying conclusions or developments. However, I will say that this is mainly caused by the sheer lack of definition in the depiction of time passing. The passing of time is only referred to in throwaway lines which are very easy to miss and the portions which should be included for character development, such as Tyrone working through summer school, are skipped entirely in simple lines of dialogue and reveals which should have been done earlier come in far too late. This lack of addressing of the passing of time also means that most romance developments also come out of the blue. The skittish structure of the scenes can certainly work for some shows and probably for some audiences for this show, however, I feel that this combined with an overcrowded narrative and a lack of attention to the passage of time result in an unfulfilling narrative.
I will also give some attention to the conclusions which are given. In a moment seemingly directly inspired by RENT, Carmen’s story is the only one which is really given a solid conclusion, and it is not a happy one. However, in a moment which seems directly taken from the indirectly dark tone of Dear Evan Hansen the finale song means the cast is singing simultaneously a tribute to Carmen by singing her words but also about their tomorrows in front of them. The irony, as in the title song ‘Fame!’, is unmissable here, however, it does still give the finale a slightly awkward tone, possibly an after effect of the strange timeline of the show, to the rousing happiness of their graduation.
In conclusion, I’m very happy that this is the production I saw. The cast was really the stand out as they were each given a powerful or big song to really sink their teeth in to and show their talents. However, as a show generally, FAME will not be going down as a favourite for me personally due to a strange overcrowded narrative which misplaces not only the tone but also character development and dramatic moments.
FAME the Musical is running at Cardiff’s New Theatre until Saturday the 29th of September and you can buy your tickets here. If you’re interested in seeing FAME during the UK Tour or on the West End you can purchase tickets through their website. Please let me know if you’re going to see, or are thinking of seeing, FAME either on tour or in the West End, or if you’ve already seen the show before.
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