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Naturi Naughton finds a path to revamped 'Fame'

The performer had the singing part down for her role, but had to learn to play piano in the musical.

September 13, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

She doesn't want to be known as that "chick from that girl group." Or the actress who played Lil' Kim.

Naturi Naughton wants you to remember her name.

And to help ensure the name recognition sticks, she's starring in the revamped production of "Fame," which hits theaters Sept. 25. She plays Denise, a singer-pianist whose parents disapprove of her attending the New York City High School of Performing Arts.

Sure, the 1980 Oscar-winning hit musical about gifted students with ambitions of being famous came out before Naughton was born. And the TV series it spawned ended in 1987, when she was just 3. But just because her exposure to leg warmer-clad dancers and choreographed dance sequences on the street came late (her first viewing of the original film was during the audition period), that doesn't mean she was completely oblivious to the movie's imprint on pop culture.

"I knew, of course, what 'Fame' was growing up," she said. "How could you not? It's iconic. And to be a part of something that has had this enduring legacy is so amazing."

Just don't expect a carbon copy of the '80s dance and drama flick, Naughton cautioned. A rendition of "I Sing the Body Electric"? It's not in this adaptation, directed by Kevin Tancharoen.

"We respect the original but we're not trying to remake it," Naughton said. "In 2009, we cannot have the exact same issues or dialogue or even all of the same songs because the time is different. There's change in music. Change in politics. Change in society. It's a reinvention, not a remake."

Among what remains though, is the title song made famous by Irene Cara in the original box office hit. And while Naughton, a petite New Jersey native, had to take piano lessons for the role, she had the singing part well under control.

She was belting out solos with the New Hope Baptist church choir at age 5. And it wasn't long before she was singing the national anthem at hometown events. By 15, Naughton was one-third of the pop and R&B musical trio 3LW (Three Little Women); she left the group in 2002 over conflicts with management.

She went on to pursue a degree in political science at Seton Hall University. But political theory analysis couldn't keep pace with her desire to perform. She had a three-year stint as Little Inez in Broadway's hit musical "Hairspray." And she made her big-screen debut playing enigmatic rapper Lil' Kim in the recent "Notorious," a biopic about slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.

It was a portrayal that drew criticism from Lil' Kim herself, who was quoted as saying Naughton's performance was "dreadful." Naughton, though surprised by the rapper's comments, makes no apologies.

"I'm an up-and-coming actress who was just trying to bring this person to life as best as I can with the material I was given," Naughton said. "I have so much respect for her and I do wish her reaction was different, but that's life and you move on."

That attitude serves as her life plan as well. "I'm just getting started. Like the song says, 'You ain't seen the best of me yet.' "

Look for her next starring with Ice Cube in "Lottery Ticket."

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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