Outstanding. That's the only way to sum up the new production of Fame, The Musical now playing at the Firehall Arts Centre. This production of the classic 80's show from Bring On Tomorrow Productions will lift your spirits, break your heart, and have you singing your way home. The downside? You have less than a week to catch this firecracker of a show.
[Here's the listing for "Fame" on the VancouverMusicals site.]
I only had a general recollection of the "Fame" story and 1980 film going in, so didn't know what to expect. Turns out this is not a retelling of the film, but - like the series that followed it - gives us a similar experience of following a group of students at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts who are full of dreams - and unresolved issues. The conceit of the musical is that everyone at "PA" has actually seen the movie, and thus some of them have inflated expectations the their experience will be the same, a notion that the teachers do their best to drum out their heads.
The show is a glorious, high-energy, engaging experience, full of great dramatic and musical performances. Each of the students makes an impact as a unique and believable character that we can identify with, feel for, and care about. In a gigantic cast like this one, that's no mean feat. Students struggle with the eternal problems of students everywhere - fitting in, finding who they are, navigating the rocky path of first romance. Along the way, there is both comedy - I laughed heartily many times - and tragic developments that I found truly affecting.
When you think of "Fame", there's two songs that come to mind, the anthemic title song and Irene Cara's monster hit, "Out Here on my Own". Both are well represented here, but the rest of the score is strong too, by turns beautiful, catchy and soulful - so that far from waiting for those hits, we're fully engaged in each musical and dramatic moment. Some standouts include "I Want to Make Magic", sung by Chris Adams as Nick, the serious and focused student who aspires to move people - and to move beyond his superficial fame from a TV commercial. And late in the show, we're in the teachers' lounge for "These Are My Children", a paean to teaching that just about wiped me out emotionally (OK, maybe it's because I'm married to a teacher!).
But in a cast that is full of great singers and great performances, an extra shout-out has to go to Madeleine Suddaby as Mabel, a sparky, wisecracking dance student who reveals jaw-dropping, powerhouse pipes on two soulful numbers (“Red Light” and "Mabel's Prayer") that both just about brought the house down!
The cast is multitalented, with several of them also playing instruments along with their singing and acting duties. Michelle Creber stands out as "Lambchop", a tomboy with a troubled home life who lives to play the drums - and at one point, she is suddenly doing just that, taking over the band's drum kit and playing with her on-stage bandmates. (Then, via some clever sleight-of-hand, she's seamlessly back on stage without a missed drumbeat! Still wish I'd seen how that was done.) Creber also performs the iconic "Out Here on my Own" and, true to the title, does make it her own.
Other highlights include Shona Reid's Doris, perfectly cast as a shy teen who needs to break free from a controlling stage mom; and Dimitrios Stephanoy as Joe, a swaggering Travolta wannabe who provides some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
The dancing is uniformly great, well synchronized, full of dynamic action and somehow making the small Firehall stage seem as big as all of Broadway. And the band is fantastic, delivering a rock-solid and exciting sound, as well as bringing the classic sound of the title song to life. At one point there is an instrumental dance number that is so percussive and dynamic, I wanted to leap out of my chair and dance along!
My only quibble is with the sound mix. From where I sat on the left side at the rear, the band was frequently a little too loud and the vocals a little too low in the mix. Notable problems were the opening number and the "Teacher's Argument" song - in both cases, much of the spoken dialogue was almost impossible to hear, or only could be heard by straining to focus on it. With performers on wireless mikes, this may be tricky to address, but hopefully it can be remedied. Still, it didn't interfere with my overall enjoyment of the show.
The bottom line is: this is an amazing production and deserves to sell out every show. If you can make it out to the Firehall... go!