The Fame Game

There’s a New Game in Town:  The Fame Game 

Performed by the Surflight Theatre at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City, NJ, and reviewed on June 20, 2009.)  Copyright © 2009 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.  

        The experts will agree that travelers to Atlantic City, anticipating a win or hitting a jackpot on the slots or at the table games, will have the odds surely against them.  It is the same when young aspiring actors hope to win the fame game—that is, to achieve stardom.  It is perhaps symbolic that the Surflight Theatre players have brought the newest game in town to the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.  This game is actually an outstanding theatrical production called Fame—The Musical, under the direction of Steve Steiner, producing artistic director.  

        The play chronicles the efforts of several young actors from the High School of the Performing Arts, in New York City, as they struggle to fight the odds to make it big in the world of the performing arts.  The irony is that, although the young people in the show are performing for the sheer delight of the theatrical experience, they, more than likely, would also like to achieve the same success that their onstage personas desire.  Every game, whether at a casino or in a sports arena or in life, has a set of rules.  Moreover, there are those players who play by the rules, those that break the rules, and those who make their own set of rules.  And those that bet over their heads.  Of course, the latter are the real gamblers.  Sometimes, they may win, but they can also lose, quite often with tragic results.  

        Fame was conceived and developed in 1980 by David De Silva as a musical film, with a book by Jose Fernandez, music by Steve Margoshes and lyrics by Jacque Levy. The film inspired a successful television series as well as the musical. Fame--The Musical, first produced in 1988, was was rewritten, taking material from earlier versions, and performed with a revised score.  Famethe Musical, as produced at the Tropicana, boasts a multi-faceted and multi-racial cast.  Oh, and did I forget to add multi-talented

        The talent of the performers, displaying colorfully stylish costumes, is evident in the fact that no sophisticated or complex scenery is necessary.  The functional—yet creative—set is a perfect backdrop that does not overshadow the action.  In what seemed to me only a few short moments, the lives, hopes, and dreams of several characters, in just an hour and a half, are brought into view just as when one focuses a pair of binoculars.  Several sets of characters are zoomed in on, and we in the audience come to empathize with their hopes and dreams for a bright and clear future.

        While the action takes place in 1984 and deals specifically with young actors in the arts, the show can be viewed as a metaphor for any time, place, or endeavor in life, whether trying to make it in the workforce, politics, or athletics.  With honesty, comedy, and soul-searching, the play confronts the problems and fears that face the youth of both yesterday and today: racial and social prejudice, self-discovery, self-evaluation, education, love, and drug use. 

        We also come to see the many stereotypes that abound in our society, those that can keep a character from “knowing his or her true self.”  As Mr. Myers, the acting teacher notes, to be a great actor and to know a character, the actor must first know his or her own self.  This is one of the major themes in this tightly written and directed script.  Indeed, most of the characters come to search into the deepest recesses of their minds and hearts in an effort to achieve success not just in the arts but also in life.  There are far too many plots and characters to delve too deeply and extensively into all aspects of the show and the performances.  Nevertheless, here is an attempt to highlight some of the major roles and scenes—an attempt, which I hope will do a little justice to this fantastic production.  

        Schlomo, Goody, who are guys, and Lambchops, a girl, want to one day have their own band.  Both actors playing the guys are convincing in there desire to be performers and in their misgivings about having a girl drummer, a position normally dominated by men.  Nevertheless, the guys soon adjust to the idea of having Lambchops in the group.  Lambchops not only wins over the guys, and even allows one to declare his love for her, but also wins over the audience, who comes to love her and the actor playing the role.  

        Carmen is the one who seems to have the best chance for success, and the actress who plays the role give an outstanding performance—in her singing and dancing and, most notably, in her acting of an idealistic young women who thinks only of fame.  In other words, she loves herself in the art and not the art in herself.  In fact, Carmen never really comes to know her true identity, which has somewhat been obscured by drug abuse.  Nor is she able to explore and express her love for Schlomo, who is devoted to her, loving her truly for herself.  She takes the easy way out, and goes for the quick fix, by quitting school and going off with an agent, who, warns Schlomo, might just be using her.  There is indeed some tragic irony when she sings these lyrics, “ Remember my name,” and “I’m going to live forever.”  

        Nick and Serena have a relationship on stage and in life and do an outstanding job of giving a sensitive and believable presentation of young people trying to find themselves and each other.  The focus of their song renditions and dialog is on playing a real scene--in other words, “a part from the heart.”  Nick is so into the theory of acting that he misses the point to be real and to express his true feelings toward Serena.  At first, he is unable to do a real scene with Serena, who is secretly in love with him.  It is not until he tries to show Joe, who has been cast as Romeo, how to do a love scene with Serena, playing Juliet, that he feels true emotion.  The scene ends with a real kiss, not a stage kiss.  The scene is so from the heart that Mr. Myers replaces Joe and puts Nick in the role.  Nick, as Nick and not as Romeo, is now ready to declare his true love for Serena.  Indeed, there may be room in their lives for love as they go their separate ways to pursue college careers.  They both acknowledge the problem with long-distance relationships, but they are hopeful for the future.  

        Tyrone is the typical or stereotypical ghetto stud who feels that his street dancing, or “Dancin’ on the Sidewalk,” as the scene is called in the play, is the “in” thing; therefore, he has no real use for ballet or classical learning.  His attitude is a defense mechanism to mask his inability to learn because of his dyslexia, a condition discovered by Sherman, who has failed him in English.  By the conclusion of the show, Tyrone learns to read, finds love, and masters classical ballet.  This latter success is demonstrated in one of the many nicely choreographed scenes.  In this sequence, Tyrone performs a skillful ballet with his love interest, a classical ballerina named Iris.  The actor playing Iris is delightfully prim and proper as she presents a young woman trying to cover up her insecurity.  However, the flower (Iris) soon wilts in the arms of of her dance partner.  Tyrone presents a powerful symbol of the conflict facing young African Americans: street smarts versus formal learning.  This conflict is present today, whether they are artists or athletes.  Tyrone presents hope for the future when he comes to realize that it takes more than just gut instinct to choreograph one’s life. 

        The teachers in the school—Miss Sherman, English; Mr. Myers, drama; Mr. Shienkopf, music; and Miss Bell, dance—are all marvelously played, and, although the actors playing Myers and Shienkopf present caricatures, as opposed to characters, their fine performances are right on the money, as they emphasize and symbolize the harsh reality of the hard work it takes to make it in one’s chosen field.  

        It is, however, Bell and Sherman who evoke the most interest and present the conflict of art versus learning, a key theme in the play.  When Bell believes that Sherman will fail Tyrone and cause him to lose the desire to continue with his aspirations, she notes that she sees much of herself in Tyrone when she was young.  In perhaps the most powerful duet of the show, “The Teachers’ Argument,” they present their own personal philosophy and the major conflict of the play.  What is more important?  Artistic talent or academic ability?  As each presents a point of view, you will find yourself agreeing wholeheartedly with that argument; that is, until you get the alternate view; indeed, the singing and acting of these two women is as powerful as the ideas they express.  

        All of these performers are great dancers; however, they must not dance like the professionals that they are, but must perform in character and with the degree of skill that their characters possess.  This concept is what makes the dance routines very difficult to choreograph and to perform.  It is also what makes the dance routines so entertaining and dynamic.  All of the actors possess unique personalities, as do the characters they play, and the somewhat stylized dancing and acting brings out the virtuosity of the performers and the unique characteristics of the roles they are playing.  This is particularly notable in the routines, such as the rehearsal for the big end-of-school production, as these accomplished dancers must stumble and fall, or botch up moves that ordinarily would be second nature to them.  

        It is not just in the dance scenes that these performer shine.  It is also in the group scenes, where the skillful acting and directing can be seen.  As the famed Russian director Stanislavky noted, “ Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.”  Thus, it is in the crowd scenes, where the mettle of the performers can be observed.  These actors are always animated, even when their characters are not in the limelight, or have key sequences. 

        There are two notable scenes where this special talent shines through.  First, Mabel, who does not want to be the world’s fattest dancer, symbolizes the dilemma of eating versus training.  Calorically challenged individuals have trouble, as the character notes, with a “seafood diet.”  In other words, she sees food .  .  .  and eats it.  The actor playing Mabel brings a neat sense of comedy to the role, yet reveals the serious side of those individuals who must face the problem of weight control.  In this scene in question, the other girls from the school, in an effort to keep her from gaining weight, surround her with large-sized property candy bars as reminders of what she should not indulge herself in.  However, to the consternation of the group, she grabs one of the “candy bars” and attempts to escape.  As the girls chase her, each one has a unique way of running after her and gesticulating their frustration of having failed.   

        The other scene is the way each of the students in the acting class reacts to the stage kiss between Nick and Serena.  Even, the actor playing Joe, who brings a combo of Brando and Fonzie to his role, has his own special reaction.  

        A nice piece of symbolic staging occurs when the performer playing Sherman, gives her bravura rendition of “These Are My Children.” Sherman has lost her temper when she tries to get though to the functionally dyslectic Tyrone.  In a moment of frustration, she slaps Tyrone, cancels her English class, and sends the students away.  Then in one of most powerful moments of the show, Sherman reveals her innermost feelings about her charges.  As she sings, “In every face, I see my saving grace,” she rearranges the students’ chairs.  Although seemingly insignificant, this action symbolically shows her desire to put her students lives in order.  She is torn between her duty to get them to be artists but also to become functional and literate members of the human race, once more highlighting one of major themes of the play:  the conflict between art and education.  As she pointed out in an earlier scene, the odds of a successful professional career are 90 to 1.  Does that sound like the odds of winning at the casinos?  

        While there are many more accolades I could express in this short review, there are just a few minor adjustments that I would like to see in this nearly perfect performance.  First, while the singing of all the performers is high quality, the actor playing Sherman is a particularly talented and dynamic singer and actor.  What mars her otherwise flawless performance is a technical problem that is not her fault.  It seemed to me that the sound system is too strong, giving her powerful voice too much of a strident quality during her solo singing performances.  Believe me, her voice is so piercing (and I mean that in a positive way) that it needs no artificial enhancement.  Of course, I was at the opening night, so this and other minor technical problems will be easy to adjust as the show progresses through the summer, enjoying what, I believe, will be a highly successful run.  

        Second, when Carmen—the one “voted most likely to succeed”—leaves the stage never to be seen again, except in a reprise, there is the faint sound of a siren offstage.  I would have liked that siren sound to be a bit louder and a tad longer in duration.  I am not sure that the siren comes through as the harbinger of a tragic destiny that it is meant to be.    

        Finally, it is somewhat frustrating to have to refer to these brilliant performers, not by name, but by the names of the characters they play.  Now, while it might not be cost effective to hand out several hundred programs each night throughout the summer, it might be nice during the curtain call to have the main actors, at least, introduced.  Another alternative, and perhaps a simpler choice, would be to have a “bulletin board,” posted in the lobby, with pictures and names of the cast, as well as those of the director, choreographer, and other key production personnel. 

        It is quite possible that one or more of these outstanding performers and theatre personnel might one day achieve fame.  And I, for one, as the song suggests, would like to remember that name.  Although you may not have done well at the tables or on the slots, you will come to realize that you still have another chance at the casinos and in life, unlike the tragic end that befalls one of the key characters. 

        In the final analysis, after you see this marvelously performed, choreographed, and directed show, the odds are that you will go home a sure winner, for you will leave inspired and spiritually enriched, as you will have shared in a truly profound theatrical experience.  Furthermore, you will have hit the jackpot in the newest game in town:  the Fame game.  And, like the characters in the show, you will be singing, “Bring on Tomorrow.”  

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