‘Fame, The Musical’ to open this weekend at Penn Charter

Fifty-two performers, 25 backstage helpers, 10 musicians and multiple brown-paper-covered tables of props, and “I haven’t cracked yet,” says junior Tara Malone, co-stage manager of “Fame, The Musical”, which opens tonight at William Penn Charter School in East Falls. 

In the theater lobby, a gaggle of moms discuss college admissions in hushed tones, bemoaning acceptances from schools that are too far away. Onstage, black-clad stagehands scurry beyond the proscenium. Tara’s counterpart, junior Kira Hastings, a girl with a purple streak in her hair, a clipboard and a pocket full of pens prefers to get on with things quietly, and enjoys her realm in the stage manager’s booth, where she calls the show’s cues. And the greenroom is seething with teenagers flanked by racks of graduation gown costumes, and an intern methodically steaming their wrinkles away. The acrid fragrance of hairspray is everywhere, and a bucket-sized container of hair gel sits next to a half-gallon pump-bottle of hand sanitizer.

The high-school musical is definitely here.

Preparing for opening night 

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Costume Designer Kathleen Grady has been working with PC Theater Manager Jessica Bender (Director of Fame) for five years. This is the second show she’s designed for PC.

“It’s a great group of students,” she says, between a round of hair-curling and a siege of sartorial queries, from the color of an undershirt to tips on best sweater-buttoning practices. Contrary to some other versions of the stage show based on the 1980 movie musical, PC has skipped dated and over-the-top 80s styling for a contemporary look and an updated script. Many of the kids are wearing their own clothes onstage.

While the stars of the play may be showcased by Penn Charter staff when the press arrives, Malone can speak up just as well. “I can get along with a lot of people,” she says of her backstage success. “I’m good at talking to people and getting them to do what I need to them to do.” With such a large team coming together to present this admirably smooth student production, she’s proven her worth, and she envisions more stage management in her college and professional career.

Female leads Amanda Rush-Ashbacker (a junior), in the role of Carmen Diaz, and senior Carolyn Grace, in the role of Serena Katz, have a passion for the stage, but see acting as a hobby rather than a career aspiration. They like the show’s “contemporary, relatable” feel, and point to the fact that, unlike Fame, most musicals produced by high schools originate in the 40s, 50s or 60s.

“As cheesy as it is, it really brings people together,” Amanda says of working with so many other kids on the show.

Standout performances 

Two male leads, junior Nic Hanson (Schlomo Metzenbaum) and senior Clay Bryan (Jose Vegas) also see the show more as a good time to connect with fellow students than as a resume-builder. Nic imagines a career in urban planning and Clay lights up at the thought of politics or international relations.

The kids warmed up for a preview performance on Thursday night in an upstairs choir room, whooping and dancing to a classmate’s beat on the bongos and then lapsing into calm silence as they joined hands for their traditional “energy circle” before hitting the stage.

What’s the hardest profession in the world – dance, music or acting? In Fame, a troupe of students at a New York performing arts high school duke it out through four years of adolescent drama, all while dancing on tables, pursuing their passion for rock, and wrestling with Stanislavsky’s Magic If. Rollicking full-cast numbers feature the requisite iconic forest of upturned palms.

While a large, well-cast core ensemble all show solid potential, watch out for the superior stage presence and vocal talents of Nic, Sapphire Johnson in the role of Mabel Washington, and Frances Bernstein in the role of English teacher Ms. Sherman.

From the first day of freshman year, to prom, to the Junior Showcase, to graduation, a cast of 52 takes a lot of costume changes.

“You should see the girls’ dressing room! It’s like a bomb went off in there!” Clay announces, only to be briskly elbowed by a female co-star.

“I mean, that’s what I’ve heard,” he says.

Penn Charter’s Fame is running onstage at the Kurtz Center tonight, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow, Feb. 25 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, call 215-844-3460 or visit www.penncharter.com/kurtzcalendar.

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