Glamour, Glitz and Gumption

As I was turning into the lavishly lit lstana Budaya (congratulating myself for arriving in good time for the gala performance of Fame – The Musical), a police outrider shot alongside and began slamming hard on my vehicle, his face a rude mask of righteous rage. Some very important politician behind me was in a mighty big hurry to see the show. Fancy allowing his uniformed lackeys to behave so uncouthly in such well-dressed company. Not a good start to the evening. That’s one reason why I’ve been reluctant to catch performances at our glittering Cultural Palace. There’s so much puffed-up self-importance in the air, such a stuffy atmosphere of pompous privilege, it almost cancels out any vestige of genuine culture on offer.

But as soon as the show began I got caught up in the infectious exuberance of the cast and the sheer confidence of the ingenious set by Norbert U. Kolb (from the 1998 US production). Musicals are a great excuse for an evening of song and dance, and we were treated to some singing and dancing that was simply superb. Never mind the unabashed commercialism of runaway hit musicals (Fame began as a movie, then became a TV series, and finally a West End musical and website). Never mind the hackneyed tunes, Disneyesque storyline, and comic strip characterizations. Director David Atkins’ Fame is scintillatingly entertaining, well-paced, and beautifully cast.

Maria Mercedes stood out as Miss Sherman, and not merely by virtue of her voice. She’s a very fine-looking woman and a forceful actress too. The cast of 27 were like a well-oiled engine, each component adding to the amazing energy of the action. Peter Harrington-Olsen cut a charismatic (and acrobatic) figure as natural-born street dancer Tyrone Jackson; Amanda Davis and Miguel Avesa were entire cities of fun as Mabel Washington and Joe Vegas; Deane Zanotto and Simone de la Rue were fire and ice as Carmen Diaz and Iris Kelly; Luke Hunter was Schlomo Metzenbaum to a T, while Allison Byrne had all the chops as drummer Grace Lamb, and Adrian Wells blew a mean sax as Goodman King.

Simon Gleeson and Laura Fitzpatrick were well-paired as all-American couple Nick Piazza and Serena Katz. Diminutive Filipina Lena Cruz held her own as Greta Bell against Maria Mercedes’s indomitable Miss Sherman.

Although the songs in Fame aren’t particularly memorable, they were performed with such conviction and passion, and so admirably supported by an invisible 9-piece orchestra (under the expert supervision of Charlie Hull and David Pritchard-Blunt, and featuring ex-Singaporean guitarist Rex Goh), one could only surrender to the exquisite pleasure of the performances.

The powerful and punchy lighting by Trudy Dalgleish was impressive to behold and incorporated all the wizardry of state-of-the-art lighting design. The clever combination of dry ice and halogen spots produced awesome light sculptures, and the rollicking finale with the New York taxicab was a perfect example of pure showbiz pizazz.

Conceived and produced by David de Silva as a feel-good movie for the teen market more than 20 years ago, Fame owes its worldwide popularity to its clever blend of conformity and rebellion. By paying lip service to academic credentials while pandering to the incipient narcissism of youth, its typically American optimism strikes a wholesome balance, inspiring young people to shoot for the sky while reminding them to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. The musical has since been performed in half a dozen language versions from Norway to Venezuela. The uncomplicated plot is upbeat, touching in parts, and generally uplifting.

Kelly Abbey’s bold and flamboyant choreography demanded tremendous technical ability and stamina from the dancers. I’ve always dreamed of being able to do backflips on demand, but here were dancers who could sail through cartwheels and flips and strenuous breakdancing steps and still have enough breath left to sing – performing the feat twice on matinee days. Now, that kind of virile energy is very sexy and sells tickets.

I’m by no means a believer in mass consumer art, but when something is done with impeccable flair and undeniable zest, one can only applaud wholeheartedly and relish the experience.

There have been pertinent remarks about our bureaucrats bending over backwards to bring in glamorous foreign talent while tossing ruinous spanners in the works of adventurous, low-budget local productions. Let’s face it, our politicians are as capable of being starstruck as any teenager hooked on the likes of Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. They love the glamour and glitz surrounding big-time showbiz. The multimillion dollar budgets alone will make them sit up and sign the necessary documents. Nothing wrong in wanting the world’s greatest hit musicals brought to Malaysia – but even the most commercially successful production may have begun very modestly and obscurely off-off Broadway, so it’s bad practice to sneer at the humble but sincere artistic efforts of homegrown practitioners.

We need all kinds of wacky individuals doing all kinds of bold and inventive artistic things to generate a talent pool big enough to eventually spawn a whale-sized commercial hit – whether in the literary, visual, or performing arts. Not that productions on the scale of Moby Dick are what cultural ferment is all about – but being able to export infinitely renewable artistic products (instead of non-renewable natural resources like the rainforest) is one of the hallmarks of an advanced nation. Companies like Jacobsen Entertainment and IMG are acutely aware of the incredible earning potential (as well as the risks) of managing live entertainment events and products. But once you have a winner on your hands it can run for years and generate billions in ticket sales and merchandising spin-offs. And you don’t need to destroy the ecosystem exporting talent.

The Aussies have proven beyond all doubt that their books, plays, films and theatrical productions are good enough to go global. Ask anyone how they got there, and you’ll hear that it was a long-term investment in human resources that’s finally paying off. For decades, the Australia Council has sponsored artistic endeavours with no political strings attached. And the Aussies have welcomed anyone with talent regardless of ethnicity. You may have been born Malaysian Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Hungarian, Polish, or Kiwi – as long as you’re resident in Australia and you’re doing amazing work, you get the recognition that’s due. That’s an example we would do very well to follow.


First Published: 14.05.2002 on Kakiseni

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