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Theater Review

The Fake Glamour of 'Fame'

Is this high school or a Vegas stage? Live version of the '80s movie makes everything look a bit too polished.

November 25, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

At least we can rest assured that the public schools are turning out a corps of students well trained in MTV-style dancing, Vegas-style singing and sitcom-style acting.

This is what we glean from "Fame," the stage musical, at the Pantages Theatre.

Actually, it's unclear how much credit should go to the public school depicted here--New York's High School of the Performing Arts in the early '80s. At the beginning, when the fictional students are supposedly callow freshmen, most of them already exhibit the same performance proficiency that they do at the end, when most of them are graduating seniors. Except for an effort to portray a dancer who's discovered to be dyslexic, we see very little educational process in the arts or any other field.

So much for the drama that should arise from this situation. The one song in "A Chorus Line" about life in a performing arts school is more pungent and authentic than the entire "Fame." Surely a lot more learning goes on at the actual performing arts schools than anyone would guess from this bauble.

Maybe it should be called "Fake." That's the word that's suggested by a lighting design more appropriate for a rock concert. Even when the English teacher takes the stage by herself to sing about the rewards of teaching, the pumped-up lighting pretends that she's Barbra Streisand on New Year's Eve.

This version reportedly cut some of the text that was in the 1994 edition that played the Alex Theatre. Missing are any references to the qualifying auditions, where we might have seen the talent in a rawer form. No, the priority is to make the talent look as polished as possible. While that's enough for a variety show, it's not enough here.

The only character who does display a whiff of progress is Sheri Sanders' budding actress. She also gets the score's best original number: "Think of Meryl Streep."

In a show rife with ethnic stereotypes, the performer who's stuck with the most egregious cliches is Natasha Neary as Carmen Diaz, a "spitfire" type who is the school's one dropout. She gets a tearful solo in which she moans about how awful her post-school cesspool, Los Angeles, turned out to be; it's one of those moments that's so bad it's good.

* "Fame--The Musical," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Today, 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Next week: Tuesday-Dec. 4, 8 p.m.; Dec. 4-5, 2 p.m.; Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m. $22-$47. (213) 365-3500. Dec. 7-12: McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, (760) 340-ARTS, (760) 220-TIXS. Dec. 21-Jan. 2: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, (714) 740-7878, (714) 556-ARTS. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Darren Ritchie: Nick Piazza

Sheri Sanders: Serena Katz

Jose Restrepo: Joe Vegas

Natasha Neary: Carmen Diaz

Catrice Joseph: Mabel Washington

Amy Ehrlich: Grace Lamb

Regina Le Vert: Ester Sherman

Carl Tramon: Schlomo Metzenbaum

Dwayne Chattman: Tyrone Jackson

Conceived and developed by David De Silva. Book by Jose Fernandez. Lyrics by Jacques Levy. Music by Steve Margoshes, title song by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore. Directed and choreographed by Lars Bethke. Set by Norbert U. Kolb. Costumes by Paul Tazewell. Lighting by Richard Winkler. Sound by Christopher "Kit" Bond. Music director Jo Lynn Burks. Production stage manager Allen McMullen.

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