A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Fame on 42nd Street

By New York City
The cast of Fame on 42nd Street(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The cast of Fame on 42nd Street
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
We're living in the boldface-name age, an era when people are famous for being famous. It's a time only 35 years or so after Andy Warhol remarked that everyone would eventually be famous for 15 minutes, and people who've taken the comment as indisputable entitlement live out the prediction on The Jerry Springer Show. It's a period when socialite Paris Hilton, whose moniker makes her sound like an advertisement for a family-held French hostelry, gets far more mentions in columns than anyone making a genuine contribution to society.

So why wouldn't a pack of producers try to grab a bundle from a musical called Fame, which is a sort-of adaptation of the hit 1980 film and the subsequent television series? (One of the producers, by the way, is listed as The Father Fame Foundation, and, since the property's conceiver and developer David De Silva is apparently known as "Father Fame," he may have something to do with that organization.) The producers have been milking this cash cow for more than a few years, opening it internationally and touring it domestically without heretofore bringing it into NYC. Word was that the show wasn't very good and no one wanted to compromise its commercial potential by burdening it with unfavorable New York notices.

Well, now it's here at the Little Shubert under a new tag that plays up its spiffy location: Fame on 42nd Street. You might wonder why, after having avoided our little island for so long, the show has finally been planted on the naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty thoroughfare that is also known to denizens as The Deuce. Perhaps the producers felt that this relatively modest show would seem refreshing when compared to the other big musicals that have already opened or are scheduled to open this season. In some ways, Fame on 42nd Street is a relief after The Boy From Oz and Wicked. To begin with, the production -- perhaps to accommodate touring -- is not overblown. It's a one-set show with a couple of movable staircases and a few other practical pieces that glide in and out. (Norbert K. Bond has designed a set that is meant to replicate the old, rundown High School of the Performing Arts off Times Square.) There is no reliance here on special effects to provide "oomph" that the book and score might lack.

The only special effects here are the mostly young cast members who play Performing Arts students and who have been directed by Drew Scott Harris to withhold nothing. Most of the 18 energetic kids -- some of them are probably in their twenties -- sing, dance, and act. A few play instruments. (The four adults, portraying teachers, are only asked to act and sing.) In other words, the troupe is packed solid with triple-threat and even quadruple-threat performers. Yet the fact that Fame provides a break from current excessive Broadway glitz doesn't guarantee that the show is a satisfying experience. While an exuberant cast can supply more than a libretto and score demands, they can rarely hide serious drawbacks.

The cast of Fame on 42nd Street(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The cast of Fame on 42nd Street
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
In Fame, librettist José Fernandez has concocted a series of interrelated, pedestrian stories about the students singing, dancing, and acting through the Performing Arts Halls and occasionally clashing with the faculty members. The vignettes are not the same as those covered in the film; indeed, one of the teachers disses the movie's legacy by telling the first-day students, "If you're here believing you're 'gonna live forever' or envision yourself dancing on top of cars down 46th Street, you are definitely humming the wrong tune." She is, of course, referring to the flick and its chart-busting title song -- but her warning doesn't preclude dancing on at least one taxi before the show is over.

There are no openly gay students among the characters; the closest thing is a male acting major (Christopher J. Hanke) who is assumed to be gay and who is slow to fall for a female acting student (Sara Schmidt). There's a dancing whiz (Shakiem Evans) whose reason for locking horns with the demanding English teacher (Cheryl Freeman) is revealed only after much sturm und drang. There's a classical ballet student (Emily Corney) who falls for a dissembling hot-shot, not caring if he can read To Kill a Mockingbird. There's the fiddling son (Dennis Moench) of a famous violinist who wants to start a rock band with a trumpeter (Michael Kary) and a drummer (Jenna Coker).

The band guy nurses a passion for a hot number named Carmen (Nicole Leach), whose role is pivotal to what Fame on 42nd Street is about -- or thinks it's about. The musical's second song is titled "Hard Work" and it crystallizes the self-congratulatory moral lesson taught by Fame on 42nd Street: Talent only prevails through hard work. Carmen, you see, wants instant recognition, and she thinks she'll achieve it by quitting school and heading for Los Angeles. Predictably, she gets into big trouble. In other words, Fame on 42nd Street decries a certain kind of fame while hoping to entice ticket buyers with the concept's alluring promise. Well, Hard Work on 42nd Street wouldn't be a money title, would it? (Just to keep things on the bright side, the ill-fated Carmen does return during a post-curtain-call number to belt "I'm gonna live forever!")

The show includes the Oscar-winning title tune written by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore for the film, but the rest of the score has been run up by Jacques Levy (lyrics) and Steve Margoshes (music). There's a bit of zing in Carmen's back-from-the-coast lament "In L.A." but the remainder of the team's thumping output is hackneyed or worse; "Can't Keep it Down," a raging-adolescent-hormone ditty sung by one of the boys, takes some kind of cake. Most of the show's thrills originate in Lars Bethke's choreography, which expertly displays the cast's dynamic high-steppers. Kind words are also due Paul Tazewell's costume design and Ken Billington's lighting, but Christopher K. Bond's sound design is sometimes so decibel-heavy that the lyrics are distorted.

Kudos to Nicole Leach for her complex Carmen, Shakiem Evans for his multi-layered and kinetic Tyrone, Nick Piazza for his shy Nick, Sara Schmidt for her shy/aggressive Serena, Q. Smith for her pudgy and pretty Mabel, Jenna Coker for her drum-happy Grace, Cheryl Freeman for her wailing in the role of English teacher Esther, Michael Kary for his trumpeter Goody, Emily Corney for her swan-graceful Iris, and Dennis Moench for his conflicted bandleader Schlomo. Many or all of these performers could very well find fame on 42nd Street and elsewhere, but they'll be helped along only slightly by this enterprise.

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