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Theater review: Polished dancing enlivens 'Fame the Musical'

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 5:09 p.m. MDT

“FAME THE MUSICAL,” the Grand Theatre, through Oct. 26, $10-$24, 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org

“Fame the Musical” opens with these lyrics to “Hard Work”: “I’m so hot, hot to trot/ I can hardly wait to show them what I got/ Wonder who’ll come out shinin’ like a jewel/ In the Fame school.”

There’s been hard work by the 17 young singer-dancer-actors to stage the Grand Theatre production, and the talented performers are eager to show us what they got. But the material they have to work with, “Fame the Musical,” doesn’t shine like a jewel.

A worthy musical requires interesting characters enacting a compelling storyline with bright lyrics and tuneful compositions. “Fame the Musical” has exuberant dances. This stage endeavor might have been more successful if the audience’s expectations were lowered by calling it “Fame the Dance.”

First there were two successful films and a long-running TV series following aspiring showbiz personalities who attend the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Surely as night follows day (Hey! I could be a lyricist!), a stage adaptation was generated.

The original concept is there but the story and score are new, with “new” being the only positive aspect. The story is paper-thin, the lyrics banal and the music pedestrian. The title song stands out as a revered masterpiece in these surroundings.

This production is tight and energetic with strong and precise dancing, yet “Fame the Musical” entraps the performers in the bland conventions.

Set in the 1980s, the production follows four years in the students’ lives from their freshman-year acceptance into the school to their cap-and-gowned anthem to the future (in “Bring on Tomorrow”). It’s also the last four years in the landmark building of New York City’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts before its move uptown, but that’s of no consequence to the story.

The stereotyped characters are introduced and then allowed to tell their clichéd stories. The nerd: Schlomo Metzenbaum (William Richardson) is the son of a famous violinist and is classically trained but with pop-band dreams.

The wild child: Carmen Diaz (Natale McAneney) is ambitious but struggling with an addiction.

The love from opposite sides of the tracks: a white ballet-trained Iris Kelly (Leah Hassett) and the illiterate black street dancer Tyrone Jackson (James Titus).

The heavy girl: Mabel Washington (Bell Hennefer), who has a “see food diet” — a witticism the authors find so clever that it is used twice.

The Latino class clown: Idolizing Freddy Prinze is Joe Vegas (Ada Jorq), who has a solo with a topic so crass it can’t be described here.

Very striking is the performance of Hassett, who is a pleasure to watch. She radiates beauty and dances with vigor and grace. There are also moments when the others indicate abilities that would be showcased with stronger material but are largely hamstrung by unfortunate sound design. The choral numbers sound just fine. However, the solos and spoken lines are nearly inaudible, perhaps not considering the cavernous auditorium. It’s hard to be engaged in the story when so much is unintelligible.

It’s evident that director David Hanson has attempted to enliven the show, with nice varieties to the staging and a sense of cohesion and unity instilled in the cast. Choreographer Ashley Gardner Carlson shows genuine talent in the polished dancing, with the ballet sequences providing rich contrast, and a flair for styles of the faded era when leg warmers were fashion statements.

But the decision-maker who championed “Fame the Musical” as an entertaining selection from the broad catalog of worthy musicals should be questioned.

Content advisory: sexual reference and few instances of coarse language

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