TORONTO -- The first national company of Fame: The Musical began its 40-city North American itinerary with a six-week engagement at the regal Royal Alexandra Theatre on Nov. 9 with a Nov. 17, press opening. Despite lukewarm reviews from the city's three major dailies, the SRO sign went up within a few days.
A spokesman for Ed and David Mirvish, the respected father and son proprietors of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, told Playbill On-Line, "they have never seen anything like it" -- the rapid sellout for a new musical with no star and unknown creators. With cheering stand-up ovations at every curtain call, Toronto's family audiences have embraced what producer David Da Silver calls the "musical stage transformation" from his 1980 hit movie.
The stories and characters gained global popularity during six years as a TV network drama series and subsequent domestic and international television syndication.
Set in the New York High School for Performing Arts during the last four years at its original West 46th Street location before moving uptown to Lincoln Center, this musicalized version is a natural vehicle for high octane song and dance numbers which punch home the potent social statements about literacy, the rewards of hard work, perseverance and staying off drugs.
Audience comments heard during intermission and exiting the theatre praised the portrayals of adolescent angst, teenage ambition, cultural pride and ethnic prejudice, acted and sung "so passionately . . with such dynamic dancing. . .super lighting and costumes" (designers Richard Winkler and Paul Tazewell, respectively) Not so complimentary were the reviews from Toronto's usually influential dailies, however. The National Post's Dan Brown wrote, "If Bill Clinton is looking for new ways to break Saddam Hussein's spirit, he should consider buying the Iraqi dictator a ticket to Fame: The Musical. The show's bombastic dance numbers and deafening electric-guitar wails are as devastating a bombardment as any payload a B-2 can deliver." However, Brown complimented cast-member Jose Restrepo, "who seems to understand that Fame should be played with tongue firmly planted in cheek." Restrepo (a graduate of the renowned AADA, making his professional stage debut) plays Joe Vegas, an insecure Puerto Rican student who really wants to be a standup comedian but is preoccupied with his hyper-active hormones, graphically explained in his big number, "Can't Keep It Down."
Four years in the making, the original 1988 production of Fame triumphed at the Coconut Playhouse in Miami Beach, reprising its financial and critical success the following year at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. Although feeling ready for "the big time" then, the producing Shubert organization refused to risk an expensive show without a bonafide star in what producer Da Silva says is, "the ultimate ensemble musical."
The famous theme song, written by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, along with "Bring On Tomorrow," are among the best-known production numbers in the show. Librettist Jose Fernandez died at age 46 in January 1994. The Havana-born playwright was also an actor, whose Broadway acting credits included The Me Nobody Knows, for which he received the Variety Critics Poll Nomination. He also captured Best Actor awards for Hair, Truckload and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He began writing for the stage with the Off-Broadway musical El Bravo!.
Lyricist Jacques Levy has written lyrics for five musicals, including the infamous, long-running Oh! Calcutta! and The Golden Land. He is a three-time Grammy Award nominee for lyrics on one of Bob Dylan's biggest-selling albums, "Desire" and the hit single "Hurricane." His non theatrical work is heard on recordings by Roger McGuinn, The Byrds, Carly Simon, Crystal Gayle, Joe Cocker, Jerry Lee Lewis and classic soprano Jan DeGaetan. He currently heads the Theatre Program at Colgate University.
Steve Margoshes' orchestrations are currently heard in the Broadway hit, Smokey Joe's Cafe. He also orchestrated the Broadway revival of Grease" He received a Drama Desk Award for his orchestral arrangements of The Who's Tommy on Broadway, which received a Best Cast Album Grammy. His other projects include a symphonic suite of the Fame score, recently recorded.
Other performers in Fame include Natasha Rennalls (Smokey Joe's Cafe and The Life on Broadway) playing Carmen Diaz, the ambitious Latina siren, enticed to LA with disastrous consequences. Carl Tramon (numerous stage and TV roles since age 3) plays Schlomo, the nice Jewish boy with classical music in his blood and the manipulative rock singing Carmen on his mind. Dwayne Chattman (dance roles in film and TV) is Tyrone Jackson, the illiterate Harlem hunk with rebellion in his heart and romantic intentions on his mind for his ballet class partner, Iris, played by Nadine Isenegger (Fosse, Cats), a WASPy but amorous white princess. Jennifer Gambatese appears as Serena, the mousy aspring classical actress who wants to play Juliet onstage and off with her Romeo, Gavin Creel (recent U. of Michigan graduate), as serious acting student, Nick Piazza.
Kim Cea (recently costarred on Broadway and in national tours of Smokey Joe's Cafe) portrays Greta the dance instructor, who stands up to black English teacher, Esther Sherman. A spinster dedicated to her career, Sherman is portrayed by Regina Le Vert (Jelly's Last Jam,).
Though never having opened on Broadway, Fame, The Musical was published by Music Theatre International, where it was discovered by Runar Borge, one of Sweden's leading music theatre producer-directors. With several acclaimed productions of well-known Broadway musicals under his belt, the four-time winner of Sweden's Tony equivalent award was seeking a property for Stockholm's numerous lovers of Broadway musicals.
Assembling the creative team who had worked with him on some of his past triumphs, Borge made the unknown Fame musical a major hit running for an unprecedented 19 months at Stockholm's China Theatre. It was revised when the team was invited to stage it at the Alex Theatre in L.A.-adjacent Glendale, CA, where it underwent further choreographic, design and orchestral adjustments. Since then, more than 4,000 performances have been seen in European productions, with the London production now in its third year.
The New York-born, raised and based Da Silva and Lars Bethke, his 33-year old multi-award winning actor-dancer-choreographer now based in LA, feel Da Costa's baby -- for which Swedes dubbed him "Father Fame" -- is now ready for American audiences.
Following its Toronto engagement, ending Dec.19, the company plays Philadelphia's Merriam Theatre for two weeks. Other Canadian stops, so far, include one week in Ottawa starting Jan. 4, 1999 at the National Arts Centre, and three weeks in Montreal beginning April 9, 1999 at the Place des Arts.
-- by Alan Raeburn