BWW Review: The Hard Work of FAME -- THE MUSICAL at GALA Hispanic Theatre

BWW Review: The Hard Work of FAME -- THE MUSICAL at GALA Hispanic Theatre
Paula Calvo as Carmen Diaz with ensemble.
Photo: Stan Weinstein

The 1988 Fame -- The Musical was camp. It was after-school special melodrama in a New York City full of stereotypes. The GALA Hispanic Theatre's bilingual production of Fame bucks this Broadway bluster to deliver on the idea fame is an illusion, and hard work is what we seek.

In this production, hard work begins with the translation. From song phrasing to scene delivery -- the potential difficulties adapting an English-language song or monologue for Spanish-speakers are myriad. Yet the Fame cast delivers the intention and emotion in each song or scene so well native language hardly matters. The added Hispanic flare and dedication to witty, cultural asides -- like the reference to the "Dominican Jewish kid' -- is just plain perfect.

If grappling with language is what GALA does well, operating in its historic space proves more challenging. The production struggled to modulate sound bouncing off the theatre's historic dome. Occasionally the track overpowers the singers, while powerhouse voices overwhelm the small space. The stage itself is also intimate, which in major dance numbers means small. There's but an inch between pointed toe and tilted head in several scenes and it's a testament to the dancers they can perform at max capacity without collision.

On such a small stage, set changes can seem chaotic. The end of "I Want to Make Magic" is eclipsed by the need to move chairs and staircases. Activity at the lockers, which are beautifully designed to grow to infinity, occurs just out of view. The series of images projected on these lockers also appear white-washed under the lights. This doesn't take away from the production's great use of a grand piano, ballet barres and rolling chairs to create different settings within one scene. The use of the audience, rafters and side stage uniquely extend the space.

Visually, Robert Croghan's costuming is spot on. Each article of clothing -- from ballet tights to ripped fishnets -- flatters the actor and accurately captures the character. It's unfortunate then, that in every scene a female character must be in a leotard, her bra takes center stage. Overall, however, the need for support in a series of explosive dance numbers is understandable.

Director Luis Salgado and Associate Director Valeria Cossu's choreography is whirling, propulsive in near back-to-back ensemble numbers. The leaps, lifts and other tricks are impactful, not gratuitous, and the ballet perfectly fits the skill-level expected of high school students. It's clear, however, which cast members have previous dance training and it makes you wonder why those artists aren't marked in front of those just half a beat behind.

Romainson Romain as Tyrone Jackson has limbs like water in his blend of Street, hip-hop and Breaking. His headspins, flips and other stunts earn awed gasps tinged with sympathy for his joints and bones. Amaya Perea is graceful as prima ballerina Iris Kelly and her pointe work is an exciting addition, but her solo with Romain in the second act is repetitive and leaves you wanting. Paula Calvo and the female ensemble, aided by Paloma de Vega's castanets, are pure fun in "The Junior Festival" Spanish dance, while the virility of the male dancers is a showstopper.

BWW Review: The Hard Work of FAME -- THE MUSICAL at GALA Hispanic Theatre
Romain Romainson as Tyrone Jackson.
Photo: Stan Weinstein

De Vega drumming as Grace "Lambchops" Lamp is convincing and impressive, while Calvo's vulnerable, sassy, sexy and funny Carmen Diaz is perfectly cast. Her delivery of "There She Goes!/Fame" gets your blood hot, while "In L.A" makes you choke back tears. Alana Thomas as Mabel Washington is the sleeper cell of the entire production. Initially written off as comedic relief, Thomas turns Mabel into an honest talent. Her voice deserves a much longer solo, though "Mabel's Prayer" does it exceptional justice.

The production is made fiercely funny by Rafael Beato's portrayal of the hormonal, jokester Joe "Jose" Vegas. The character's antics could easily elicit groans, but Beato plays him honestly and the sincerity with which he can sing about masturbation is the funniest part of the entire show. Imanol Fuentes Garcia as acting teacher Mr. Myers is great opposite Beato, and establishes Myers as more than a secondary character. Instructors Greta Bell and Esther Sherman, Teresa Quigley Danskey and Susan Oliveras, nail their cat fight in "The Teacher's Argument," rounding out the "adult" cast.

But in a show packed with talent and big personalities, to craft a character with quiet strength and visible growth is a unique feat Tanya de Leon achieves with Serena Katz's shift from shy actress to burgeoning star. De Leon has one of the strongest voices, managing amazing control at both a belt and a whisper in "Think of Meryl Streep" and "Let's Play a Love Scene." When paired with Carlos Salazar's Nick Piazza you wish a GALA original cast recording existed.

BWW Review: The Hard Work of FAME -- THE MUSICAL at GALA Hispanic Theatre
Carlos Salazar and Tanya de Leon as
Nick Piazza and Serena Katz. Photo:
Stan Weinstein

Salazar and de Leon's Nick and Serena are also the most convincing stage lovers. Sharing just one look, you feel Serena's ill-fated pining and Nick's confused indifference and long for their happy ending. This incredible chemistry isn't easily recreated, but Juan Luis Espinal and Calvo as Schlomo Metzenbaum and Carmen manage it in a way that's true to their characters. Unfortunately, Romain and Perea's Iris and Tyrone are two opposites whose attraction feels forced from their first meeting to their awkward hug in the final scene.

Salgado's emphasis on the Spanish, LatinX, Hispanic and African-American culture in both the cast, crew and characters puts the production perfectly in place with today's politically pressurized America. His decision to include student musicians Melody Flores -- from D.C.'s own "fame school" the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts -- and Kendall Haywood and Andrew Velez from George Mason University shows respect for his roots as a member of GALA's student to stage program, and his belief in the power of hard work.

Fame -- The Musical runs May 9th to June 9th, 2019 at The GALA Hispanic Theatre.

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From This Author Lora Strum

Lora Strum is an award-winning writer and journalist based in Washington D.C. She's written for the PBS NewsHour, Marquette University, The Army News Service, The (read more...)

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