music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
“Fame…I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly, high.”
SO goes the theme song from “Fame, the Musical”, that 1988 story of life at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City that was revamped for Broadway in 2003 and hasn’t left the stage since.
The song titles speak for themselves – “I Want to Make Magic”, “Bring on Tomorrow”, “Think of Meryl Streep” and “Dancin’ on the Sidewalk” – and it’s bound to be a dancing-in-the-aisle theatrical experience.
Although it could be viewed as essentially an ’80s musical, the show speaks to director Jarrad West as if it had been written yesterday.
PA High student Carmen can’t wait to be famous, but instead plunges into drugs and despair.
“Carmen might have the killer instinct that makes you a star, but not only do you have to have exceptional talent in theatre, you have to be patient,” says West.
“I say that to the 16, 17 and 18-year-olds who tell me they expect to get straight into WAAPA [WA Academy of Performing Arts].
“Young kids think they’re going to take the world by storm and I think I was the same at that age.”
To him that’s what “Fame” is all about, “it will take time, so you should enjoy the ride”.
But the heady, youthful quality in “Fame” is irresistible and he is aware that “the music has a certain energy that defined the ’80s and there is so much dancing”.
He has deliberately cast his “Fame” with young people and believes none of the principals are above the age of 21.
The plot, he says, covers four years and the characters in real life would range from 13 to 18-year-olds.
“It’s a tough musical to cast because the casting must be realistic, which requires good acting, but the subject matter requires good song and dance,” West says.
He says directing a musical should be like directing a straight play when creating character, saying: “You have to pay respect to the material you’re working with and I find it fun to watch the kids responding to that… too many young kids go from show to show without committing themselves to their parts.”
As well as the kids there are the teachers, which are plum cameo roles in the show. He has engaged veterans Janie Lawson as English teacher Miss Sherman, Chris Baldock, as the drama teacher Mr Myers and Steph Roberts as the music teacher Ms Sheinkopf, providing a moral landscape for the story.
In one memorable scene Miss Sherman warns the freshmen that it takes a lot more than dreams to succeed, a good excuse for the number “Hard Work”.
Alas, Carmen is a tragedy waiting to happen. She’s the main focus of the whole plotline, super-talented, but doesn’t want to put in the work.
By contrast, violin student Schlomo, also hugely talented, is more disciplined but falls in love with Carmen – “he is the other side of the coin, it’s the boy and the girl out of sync, an old story,” West says.
The musical is full of ironies like this, but it is not a morality play, as can be seen in his treatment of the final number, a reprise of “Fame” where the now-dead Carmen returns, glowing, to the stage.
“It’s a way of saying ‘I was there’,” he says.
“Fame the Musical”, The Q, Queanbeyan, May 11-26. Bookings to theq.net.au or 6285 6290.