On NBC's "The Kids From Fame" tonight, Carlo Imperato, one of said kids, asks rhetorically, "Is 'Fame' gonna live forever?" It's a timely question, because in the next few weeks NBC executives will put their tiny heads together and decide the fate of "Fame" and other shows up for renewal for next season.
"Fame" is a curious case. The show does well in urban markets, no doubt in part because of its refreshing multi-ethnic complexion, but not so well out in the hustings. It is also a smash hit in England, and that fact occasioned a visit by some members of the "Fame" cast to the Royal Albert Hall for a concert filmed at Christmas time and to be aired in radically abridged form at 8 tonight on Channel 4, in "Fame's" regular time slot.
The program fails to answer one tantalizing question: What could the youngsters from "Fame" do if by some miracle they got hold of really first-rate material? Almost all the songs performed in concert on tonight's one-hour special are stupendously mediocre, and although some members of the ensemble (augmented by additional dancers) have dazzlingly athletic dancing abilities, almost all the dances on "Fame" express the same thing: nothing beyond physical exultation.
Tonight's show, engagingly narrated by George Burns from an MGM soundstage, is an improvement on the regular series in that one doesn't have to sit through one of the show's emotional crisis plots to get to the musical numbers. But as directed by Terry Sanders, the numbers come off fragmented and jerky, so that you're never quite sure how they looked to all those enthusiastic fans at Royal Albert Hall.
Again, it seems obvious that two people essentially carry the show: Debbie Allen, who is no kid but is a gifted and captivating dancer and choreographer; and Gene Anthony Ray, so possessed of intimidating swagger that he dominates the stage no matter how many people he shares it with. He is the master macho tease of television (when Ray says, "Now, y'all watch me work," people do as they are told). Imperato, who plays an aspiring comedian on the series, shows some musical abilities here as well, and his number "Friday Night" has one of the few compelling melodies of all the songs in the show.
On the other hand, what does anyone see in performers as definitively anemic, physically and artistically, as the sickly Lee Curreri, a voiceless whimperer, or the intensely artificial Lori Singer, too shallow even for the part of a mannequin that she plays in one of the numbers? Perhaps these people are included in the group so that folks at home will be able to feel themselves as talented as--preferably, more talented than--they are. Boys and girls next door go over better on television than divas and virtuosos do.
Even though this "Fame" lacks a dramatic script, and the performers are not in the characters they play on the show, we do get some of the theology of "Fame," which has always been a little off-putting. One song, it is explained, is "about believing in yourself . . . being your own hero," but isn't that really what all the songs are about, all the time? Even those whom this message might benefit must be capable of overdosing on it after a while.
At moments, "The Kids From Fame" is electrifying, never more so than when the title tune, written for the original film, is reprised for a finale, and the predominantly youthful audience in Royal Albert Hall joins in the refrain of "I'm gonna live forever," the charming dream of those too young to know better. At this poignantly defiant rallying point, it becomes clear that despite its imperfections and disquieting overtones, "Fame" deserves to live. It deserves to live because unlike most shows on television, it's got life.