Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
La Comedia Dinner Theatre, southwest Ohio's most respected dinner theater, should be praised for presenting a show with more dramatic and musical impact than their usual fare, and one that reaches a broader audience than the norm. With their worthwhile production of Dreamgirls, La Comedia accomplishes this and more, including an entertaining staging of a great show.
Dreamgirls is the story of the Dreamettes, a trio of young African-American women trying to make it in showbiz in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. These ladies have talent and, with the assistance of four men, they pursue their dreams of stardom. However, their success on stage has a cost. As heartache, betrayal, triumphs, and defeat occur behind the scenes, these women seek to maintain their dignity.
Dreamgirls won several 1982 Tony Awards when it debuted under the astute direction of Michael Bennett. Its book by Tom Eyen skillfully mixes glittery performance numbers with oftentimes gut-wrenching emotional scenes for these complex and realistic characters. The action flows quickly, and sufficient drama, humor, and pathos keep the interest level of the piece high.
Dreamgirls' score has music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Tom Eyen. The Motown sounds of the period are captured authentically in on-stage numbers such as "Move," "One Night Only," and the title song. Krieger demonstrates his first-rate ability to create soaring emotional melodies (later heard in his wonderful music for Side Show). Eyen's lyrics support the material well, have wit and spunk, and at times offer keen double meanings. The show relies mostly on well-crafted recitative rather than dialogue. Song highlights from this fine score include the moving "Family," the funky "Steppin' to the Bad Side," (which shows the decision of the African-American producers to use the same shady tactics as their white counterparts to get their music heard) and the fervent anthem "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going".
La Comedia has assembled a talented group of performers for Dreamgirls. In the lead role of Effie White, Fredena Williams displays an appropriately sassy attitude. She delivers in her powerhouse number "And I Am Telling You," but also is poignant when singing "I Am Changing." Though a richer tone in singing voice would have better suited the role, Ms. Williams sings all the right notes and acts the role well. As the other members of the Dreamettes, Emily Mitchell (Deena Jones) is elegant and believable in her transformation from innocent to world class diva, and Badia Farha (Lorrell) is most impressive in the second act as the taken-for-granted lover of a married R&B star. As a replacement member of the trio, Candace Jones shines in her limited stage time in the role, and all four women sing and blend their voices well.
The show also provides opportunities for its four lead male performers. D. William Hughes has strong stage presence and supplies sufficient vocals throughout as the deceitful manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. Gregory Marlow is wonderfully touching as Effie's brother C.C. and sings beautifully. As James "Jimmy Thunder" Early, Dondi Rollins, Jr. is a crowd favorite. He is a spitfire of energy as the James Brown-type performer and is a gifted dancer and actor. However, his vocals don't always hit the mark either musically or in diction. As Marty, Donte J.L. Murray adequately portrays the old-school manager of Jimmy Thunder. The remaining ensemble members do well in support of these eight leading performers.
Peggy Taphorn's direction is hit and miss. Ms. Taphorn, who also serves as choreographer, succeeds in bringing out the emotion and humor of the show and stages some scenes very effectively. However, the overall energy needed for the piece is lacking, especially at the beginning, and some scenes just don't have the dramatic impact they should. Her choreography for the performance numbers is great, but a few character songs, such as the beginning of "Steppin' To the Bad Side," are overdone.
Matthew J. Evans provides a simple, yet suitable set representing the backstage setting for the show and includes lighting scaffolding, dressing room furniture, and various stage curtains. Dreamgirls uses many flashy and gorgeous costumes, supplied here by designer Marilynn A. Wick, coordinators Sharen Eninger and Alyssa Moser, and Costume World, Inc.
The major liability to this production is the sound. It is difficult to tell whether it is the design or the execution, but there were numerous sound problems on opening night that severely distracted from the overall effectiveness of the show.
Dreamgirls is a solid musical with a thoughtful story and exciting songs. La Comedia gives the show a rewarding staging thanks in part to its talented cast. The largely African-American audience on opening night responded enthusiastically to the show, which would be even better with some improved direction and sound. The musical continues through October 10, 2004, and tickets can be ordered online at www.lacomedia.com or by phone at 1-800-677-9505.-- Scott Cain