The FSCJ Artist Series and the Wilson Center for the Arts opened the 9th edition of this summer musical theatre experience, with “Fame -The Musical.” We are sure most audience members on the opening night of July 26, 2014 were familiar with the musical. Originally a 1980 movie, it has remained popular and appears on cable from time to time. In 1982, it was made into a successful television series that ran for six years. The stage musical has Florida ties, as it was originally produced in Miami in 1988 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

The plot concerns the aspirations and lives of several students attending a High School of Performing Arts in New York City in the ’80s.

THEATRE_Fame04There are fourteen main named characters, and when the musical has been performed in other parts of the US, the cast is often limited to fourteen or just a few more. Those of you who have attended any of the previous eight summer musicals at FSCJ know that they do things in a big way by choosing musicals that are “expandable,” which allows for participation by many high school students from the North Florida and South Georgia areas.

Under the inspired direction of Samuel Fisher, the production has sixty cast members and in addition, many other students participate as crew members or musicians, which makes extravagant production numbers possible. When all of them are on stage singing and dancing in the first few minutes of the show, the sight is magnificent and very colorful. 

The first solo among several in the show is by Nick Piazza (Logan Smith), with “I Want to Make Magic,” which gives us an idea of how intense he is about an acting career. José ‘Joe’ Vegas (Ian Ramos) sings the first of several comedic numbers with “Can’t Keep It Cool,” and continues to provide much of the show’s humor throughout. Serena Katz (Isabella Martinez), initially hides behind horn-rimmed glasses, but becomes increasing confident, which leads to a sparkling duet with Nick in the second act. 

THEATRE_Fame03“Dance Class” features two excellent dancers with Iris Kelly (Keirnan O’Conner), a serious ballet student, and Tyrone Jackson (Willie Beaton II), an explosive hip-hop dancer and rap singer. They quickly forge a partnership through their love of dance. However, both carry emotional baggage. Iris is not what she seems to be, and Tyrone, who is dyslexic, is having academic problems because he can’t read. 

Carmen Diaz (Jasmine Walters) is a dynamite singer and excellent dancer who, with a number of backup singers, belts out “Fame,” the title song. Carmen also has her personal problems, as she takes drugs to control her weight. Mabel Washington (Caitlin Couch), a talented singer and dancer, is also obsessed with eating and weight loss issues. 

Jacob Sims in the role of Schlomo Metzenbaum is a classical violinist whose father is a famous violinist, but he likes the idea of playing piano in a rock band with his friends. Grace, also known as ‘Lambchops’ as played by Jillian Parsons, is an animated blonde who plays percussion and is excited about the prospects of the band. Goodman ‘Goody’ King (Joshua Johnson), who plays the trumpet, is the third member of this dynamic trio.

The teachers in “Fame” are all students and are excellent at portraying the older faculty members. Danielle Barrie as Miss Esther Sherman is very believable as the stern administrator who enforces the stern rules of the school. Ms. Barrie and Sophie Luedi, who plays Ms. Greta Bell, the dance instructor, sing together in “The Teacher’s Argument,” a marvelous duet at the end of Act One. 

Mr. Myers (Brandon Hines) is the drama teacher, and seems to enjoy being with his students, as he discusses the goals and realities of performance. Brian Alford, sporting a German accent as Mr. Sheinkopf, is the music teacher; serious but humorous at times as well.

THEATRE_fame01A number of romances develop between the participants but we will leave that for you to discover when you see this show. While based on a 1980 film, the themes and struggles are relevant to today’s students, although their present-day concerns are perhaps complicated by their cell phones. 

The remaining sixty students comprise the dancers, and singers who are constantly on and off the stage in the many short scenes that provide context for the eighteen songs. The cast displayed wonderful precision and energy and a real love of performance. The dancing was excellent and a great part of the show. Thanks go to Choreographer Amber Daniels, and her assistants Kendall Messersmith and Willie Beaton II, for their resourceful originality. Kudos as well to Vocal Director Matt Morgan. “Fame” has some excellent voices that were a real pleasure to experience.

The orchestra appears to be a four-piece combo visible on the second floor of this massive set. However, under the direction of Dr. Paul Weikle, Musical Director and Orchestral Conductor, there are actually fourteen musicians, with the majority hidden backstage.

Speaking of the set, it is another masterpiece by Scenic Designer and Technical Director Johnny Pettegrew and his crew. The two-story brick structure takes up the entire stage and has grand stairways on either side. While some of the action occurs on the steps and upper portion, almost everything happens center stage, with set pieces moved swiftly on and off as needed.

Special thanks go to Sound Designer Phillip Allison, who has miked all the principals so that you can hear every note and word no matter where you are sitting in this wonderful venue.

The Costume Crew (Camala Pitts and Dorinda Quiles) are back again this year and have created and coordinated an eye-pleasing array of fashionable styles from the 1980s’ urban teen scene.

The direction by Samuel Fisher of this large cast of serious and talented musical theatre performers, from high schools throughout the area, was superb.

Producer/ Program Director Beth Harvey, whose idea it was nine years ago to start this program, has once again produced a fabulous hit with the assistance of many contributors on all levels.

Three performances remain, on August 1 and 2 at 8 pm, with the final curtain on August 3 at 2 pm. For tickets, call 904-442-2929 or visit www.artistseriesjax.org

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.