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Gifted and talented stars elevate the otherwise lame 'Fame'; Director, choreographer and student performers find depth in shallow high school musical

"Fame" is a horrible musical. We should be frank about that, right here, right now. It has a shallow concept, a lazy script, a Who's Who of archetypes, and 14 songs that sound remarkably like only three. It might be one of the worst shows ever written.

And it might have been one of the most enjoyable nights at the theater I've had in a long time.

It's that rare case of a production that knows the limits of its material, and still gives it the precision, care and respect it deserves. If "Fame," the musical based on the 1980 film and TV series about New York's High School for the Performing Arts, is about finding potential in one's talent, then "Fame," the production on stage at Artpark, is about finding potential in one's material.

Director Randy Kramer and choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, whose collaborations at Artpark and MusicalFare are countless, have captured magic in a bottle with their cast. Seven of the 14 leads hail from the theater department of Elon University in North Carolina, where Kurdziel-Formato is on the faculty. They have been taught well.

The show, if your home has been the underside of a rock for the last 31 years, tells the story of students seeking fame, fortune and success. It takes place at a high school for actors, dancers and musicians, all of whom want the end before they learn to understand the means. They're not afraid to work hard, too hard, if it means they will achieve their dreams.

It's light-years away from the business model of today. The public makes stars out of burping babies, lifeless socialites and lucky passersby. But in schools like the musical's "P.A." (as it's called), at Elon, and, locally, at Niagara University and the University at Buffalo, kids bust their butts, toes and vocal chords to get the opportunity to be seen. To be heard. They work hard for their money. Luckily for us, we have the cream of the crop in the cast of this Artpark production.

Jared Loftin's Joe Vegas, a charmer among charmers, fulfills the cliche of this Latin blowhard with nuance. His entrances and exits are as entertaining and insightful as any line of dialogue. Leela Rothenberg's Mabel is an unapologetic facsimile of Bette Midler, hungry for fame and pudding. She is a raucous delight.

Buffalo's Nicole Cimato, who has the uncanny ability to surprise at a moment's notice, is edgier than ever as drummer punk Lambchops. Steve Copps, often a show's lovable mensch, is darling as Nick Piazza, an actor who applies his own navigation of youthful romance to his performance as Romeo with wide eyes.

The central roles of Carmen and Tyrone, the street-friendliest of them all, resistant to structure and formality, are the ones we focus on. Lucy Ann Werner's Carmen is a budding superstar, but without the drive. Her talent comes easily, and so her commitment to fulfilling it becomes diluted. Eli Coleman's discoveries of both Tyrone's limitations and abilities are raw, heartfelt. These performances carve out access to these characters in a way the script does not allow. With scenarios and dialogue ripped from every after-school special ever made -- "Are those drugs? But drugs are bad!" or something like it -- it would be easy to give up on this "Fame." But it would be a mistake.

It's possible this young cast has such keen understanding of their roles because they're presently walking in the same shoes. High school, college, young adulthood; it's all the same classroom. But maybe, just maybe, it's because they're insanely, incredibly, purely talented. Either way, it's exciting to watch and promising to witness.

And that, despite all its stupid trappings, made this a night far more worthy than it possibly deserved to be.

***

"Fame -- The Musical"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Through Thursday in the Artpark Mainstage Theater, 450 S. Fourth St., Lewiston.

Tickets are $25-$45. Call 754-4375 or visit www.artpark.net.

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