The return to the Triangle of the Phoenix Productions and Magic Arts & Entertainment National Tour of Fame the Musical, playing tonight through Sunday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium courtesy Broadway Series South, is one of those rare opportunities for local theatergoers to watch talented young performers develop, quite literally before their very eyes. There were several problematic portrayals when this same cast played Duke University’s Page Auditorium last Nov. 17th as part of the Broadway at Duke series, but the performers in question have truly perfected their portrayals. So, the standing ovation at the end of the opening-night performance, June 1st, was long and loud and well-deserved.

The National Tour stars Mekia Cox as Carmen Diaz, a lovely Latina singer and songwriter with an increasingly serious drug problem; Joe Carney as Nick Piazza, a teenage star of stage, screen, and TV commercials who hopes to perfect his acting talents at New York City’s famous High School of Performing Arts; and Megan Elizabeth Lewis as Serena Katz, a novice Juliet who desperately wants to make Nick her Romeo.

Mekia Cox is much, much improved as a beautiful songbird whose increasing appetite for diet pills and cocaine makes her the Class of 1984’s Girl Most Likely… to End Up in the Morgue. Joe Carney is sweet and sensitive and self-assured as Nick, a character so obviously gay that when he eventually succumbs to Serena’s persistent come-ons, it seems like a copout. (There weren’t any artistically inclined gay teenagers in the early 1980s, were there?) But it is Megan Elizabeth Lewis, with her big Broadway voice and passionate portrayal of the lovelorn Serena, who steals the show.

Pablo Murcia’s crowd-pleasing portrayal of class clown and Freddie Prinze wannabe Jose “Joe” Vegas is hilarious; and Kellee Knighten is a stitch as aspiring (but hopelessly overweight) dancer Mabel Washington, whose uncontrollable appetite threatens to derail her dance career before it begins. Julie Burdick is charming as dance prodigy Iris Kelly; and Anthony Wayne is terrific African-American dancer Tyrone Jackson, a budding choreographer whose undiagnosed and untreated dyslexia, at first, keeps him from reading at any more than a kindergarten level.

Justin Speranza is quite convincing as Schlomo Metzenbaum, the gifted but rebellious son of a violin virtuoso who marches to a very different (hard-rock) beat; David Rossetti demonstrates a fine flair for comedy as trumpet player Goodman “Goody” King; and Elana Architzel becomes an immediate crowd favorite with her outrageous antics as oddball drummer Grace “Lambchops” Lamb, a punk-rock percussionist trying to learn the classical shtick.

Tuesday night, Nicole Stevenson successfully substituted for Toni Malone in the important role of strait-laced English teacher Ester Sherman, who becomes Tyrone’s nemesis when she persistently questions to him to expose his learning disability; and Michael Jenkinson suavely subbed for Shawn Pennington in the role of Mr. Myers, the acting teacher whose none-to-gentle probing of his students’ psyches sometimes causes his more tightly wound pupils to explode.

Dana Baráthy was again a delight as free-spirited dance teacher Greta Bell, and David duPont made the most of his moments as Mr. Sheinkopf, the music teacher.

Once again, Fame‘s musical highlights include Megan Elizabeth Lewis’s solo on “Let’s Play a Love Scene” and “Think of Meryl Streep”; Kellee Knighten’s comical complaint in “Mabel’s Prayer” about being the world’s fattest ballet dancer; and Nicole Stevenson’s heartfelt vocal on “These Are My Children.” But this time Mekia Cox really belts the title tune (“Fame”); and the show’s production numbers, especially “Hard Work” and “Bring on Tomorrow,” really rock, thanks to director Bill Castellino’s brisk staging and choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s dynamic dance routines.

Scenic designer Walt Spangler contributes an impressive post-industrial set of two rotating graffiti-tagged steel towers, lighting designer Mike Baldassari artfully illuminates the action, and costume designer Fabio Toblini dresses the cast in a vivid array of 1980s casual clothing.

The artistry of musical director/arranger Christopher McGovern and sound designer Craig Cassidy also help make Fame a must-see musical. And conductor Jaspar Grant, assistant conductor Alex Heun (trombone/keyboards), Brian Blauch (reeds), Vincent Briguglio (bass), Mark Cepeda (drums), Nick Panos (trumpet), and Wayne Trosclair (guitar) make all the gems in composer Steven Margoshes and lyricist Jacques Levy’s award-winning score really sparkle!

Second Opinion: June 2nd Independent Weekly preview by Byron Woods:

Broadway Series South presents Fame the Musical Thursday-Friday, June 3-4, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 5, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 6, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $17.50-$57.50. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/231-4575, tix@, or Broadway Series South: Fame the Musical: [inactive 8/04]. Fame (1980 Film): Fame (1982-87 TV Series):