Melissa Blease reviews Fame The Musical’s 30th anniversary tour, starring Keith Jack, Mica Paris and Jorgie Porter, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 9 February
It’s hard to believe that Fame The Musical (based on Alan Parker’s 1980 film of the same name, which also inspired a six-season TV series) celebrates its 30th birthday this year. For those of us of a certain vintage, it only seems like yesterday that a diverse collection of students at New York’s High School of Performing Arts donned their leg warmers, reached for the stars, and high-kicked their way into our hearts and minds as they sang, danced and played their trumpets on their journey to… well, fame.
In these X-Factor/Britain’s Got Talent/YouTube ‘sensation’ days, the concept of properly talented, highly motivated young people (who, by the way, don’t utter the dreaded, careworn ‘passion’ cliché once when discussing their aspirations) actually working hard to reach their goal rather than being fast-forwarded to a 15-minute grab by a TV company is refreshing rather than dated. The student’s backstories, though, are – sadly – all too familiar and easily transpose to millennial characters, most notably fame’n’cocaine-obsessed Carmen, sex-obsessed Joe and weight-obsessed Mabel – although each of them would today probably search for solace and support in social media rather than the college canteen. Meanwhile, wannabe pointe princess Iris would still find it very difficult to pirouette her way out of poverty, and Tyrone – the smooth street dancer debilitated by dyslexia – would still need an empathetic advocate to give him a literal leg-up.
The kids are guided through the problematic pride and prejudice maelstrom that variously blights and hinders their college days by a collection of mentors including protective, optimistic dance teacher Miss Bell, kindly drama tutor Mr Myers and the permanently perplexed music head honcho Mr Sheinkopf. And at the helm, we have Miss Sherman: a tough cookie with, as it turns out, a meltingly tender heart of gold.
Those of us of a hyper-critical nature may accuse the script of not putting the necessary meat on the bones of characters that initially bode well for the story to follow – and indeed, there’s more emphasis on all-singing, all-dancing action than emotional investment or development. It could be said that Fame The Musical is A Chorus Line’s flimsy predecessor, while today’s kids may find Glee far more substantial. But despite the academic flaws, this energetic, vivacious production is slick and celebratory enough to kick any sense of cynicism to the kerb and allow audiences to bathe in the kind of exuberant escapism that only really good musical theatre can offer.
From an incredibly strong ensemble cast (and they really are incredibly strong; the dancers could teach the Strictly professionals a thing or two, while many of the singers scale heights that would make Simon Cowell’s waistband ping), Mica Paris is a stunning Miss Sherman, smoothly cruising her way from harridan-esque frump to Diva in Command as the drama gathers pace. When she takes her spotlight moment to sing These Are My Children, it’s one of those rare, glorious, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments: close your eyes, and we’re on full-on gospel/soul-tinged Aretha territory; open them, and they’ll probably be filled with tears.
Elsewhere on the non-stop, live playlist, headstrong, ambitious actor Serena (Molly McGuire) brings humour and charm to the party courtesy of both the bittersweet ballad Let’s Play A Love Scene and the hilariously witty Think Of Meryl Streep, while the familiar, uplifting blast of the stage, film and TV series’ title song itself is a triumphant paean to ambition that you’ll find yourself singing along to long after the curtain falls – indeed, it’s an earworm that may well live forever.
Main image: Fame The Musical, Albey Brooks as Joe, centre. Credit: Tristram Kenton