“Fame” creator David De Silva seems determined: His sojourn through the lives of talented teens attending a New York-based high school for the performing arts is “gonna live forever.” This well-traveled stage adaptation of the 1980 MGM feature exudes an entertaining, youthful zest despite a mediocre score and a woefully mundane plot. Director-choreographer Lars Bethke instills a vibrant honesty of performance in the ensemble that usually manages to override the lack of authenticity in Jose Fernandez’s book. The proceedings are helped immeasurably by the fiery presence of Natasha Neary as the tragically self-destructive Carmen Diaz and Jessica Cohen’s beautifully ethereal outing as dancer Iris Kelly.
Set in the 1980s, the production follows four years in the lives of 10 student-performers from their freshman year acceptance into the school (“Pray I Make P.A.”) to their cap-and-gowned anthem to the future (“Bring on Tomorrow”). Though not publicized as a clone of the film, which received four Academy Award nominations (and won the Oscar for best song), the tuner certainly sports some parallel characters and situations, including a ragingly ambitious child of the inner city (Neary’s Carmen); the Latino class clown who loves Freddy Prinze (Jose Restrepo’s Joe Vegas); the romantic pairing of illiterate black street dancer Tyrone (Dwayne Chattman) with white, classically trained Iris; the comical relationship of “serious” actors Nick Piazza (Darren Ritchie) and Serena Katz (Sheri Sanders); and the aesthetic angst of classically trained but pop-oriented musician-composer Schlomo Metzenbaum (Carl Tramon).
Whatever the creakiness of the between-song dialogue and plot, the production takes off once the music starts. Naturally, the most memorable number in the show is the film’s award-winning title song, buoyed by Neary’s soaring voice and the ensemble’s adroit, gymnastics-laden hoofing. Later, Neary is riveting as drugged-out Carmen offers “In L.A.,” a searing lament to her broken dreams. In a memorable contrast to most of the show’s extroverted dance offerings, the tender boy-wins-girl “Pas de Deux” features muscular but graceful Chattman and the softly floating presence of Cohen.
Other highlights include Joe’s comical ode to his self-serving genitalia (“Can’t Keep It Down”), Serena’s manic attempt to win over Nick (“Let’s Play a Love Scene”) and the highly physical, free-wheeling “Dancing on the Sidewalk,” featuring Chattman and the ensemble. Also notable are the impressive onstage instrumental performances of Grace “Lambchops” Lamb (Amy Ehrlich) on drums, Goodman “Goody” King (Jason Maniscalco) on trumpet and Tramon’s Metzenbaum on violin. It is only fitting that the show closes with a full- cast curtain call re-creation of the film’s memorable dancing-on-top-of-a-taxi reprise of the title song.