Regional Reviews: San Francisco
The Willows Theatre Group has come up with a winner with a revival of the Broadway hit musical Dreamgirls. The original opened on Broadway on December 20, 1981 and it ran 1,522 performances. It was the final masterpiece for Michael Bennett. It is also interesting to note it was the forerunner (being a mostly singing musical) to the current crop of singing musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis and Miss Saigon We saw the show when it first opened in New York at the Imperial. I was floored by the music of Henry Kriger and Tom Eyen. It also made a star of Jennifer Holliday.
The musical is about the Dreams, a three member girl group that runs from the mid-60's to mid-70's. It is laced with tunes that evoke that period, from Rhythm & Blues to Disco. It is probably the story of the Supremes however Diana Ross' attorneys deny that it is her story.
The girls are high school pals and start off as the Dreamettes competing in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The group also included one of the Dreamettes's brother C.C. who writes their music. They don't win, but in the encounter they connect with their new manager, Curtis Taylor, who arranges for them to be backup singers for a musical legend.
The group has considerable success under their managers guidance. Effie, the Jennifer Holiday role, had been the lead singer but Taylor manages to have Deena become the lead singer. She is prettier and more in glamorous then Effie. He wants someone less ethnic to lead the group to success and crossover into the white market. Taylor becomes Deena's lover and this is emotionally devastating to Effie since she was in love with Taylor.
Effie is fired from the group because she becomes a liability to the group. When this happens Effie suffers a nervous breakdown. In the second act, the Dreamette become International stars and Deena becomes a star in her own right.
The lyrics and score catch fire from the very first beat and it does not stop until the curtain rings down the production. The piece is almost entirely sung and tunes and lyrics drive the action. They become increasingly soulful and emotional as the personal lives of the Dreams become painful and hollow.
This cast is superb. They are not only impressive singers and actors who perform well, but they look just right for the part. Particularly outstanding is Semien, who plays the R&B star, James Early. He is worth the price of admission. He has a stage presence that won't quit. He ranges from Little Richard to James Brown to Michael Jackson. Also terrific is Annette D Noble who plays Effie. Her nervous breakdown number at the end of the first act is astonishing. It knocked my socks off. She had a unique singing style that made her a knockout. Kalene Parker played Denna and she looked and sounded like the divine Ms. Ross. Great silky voice and a shape to match. Curtis Taylor was played by C.J. Blankenship and he had a marvelous voice for the role.
Completing all this are the sets which were a clever series of moving platforms and rams that effectively represented everything from posh nightclub stages to recording studios. The gowns were lavish and typified the successful girl of the period. Direction by Richard Elliott was smooth and compact. The Willows have invested in a great sound system for their musicals. It is not taped music or music by a synthesiser. It is a special computer type musical that contains all the instruments of a orchestra, brass, stings, drums etc. The sound is crystal clear and it comes over like gangbusters. This production runs until October 30. It has been seeing sell out crowds.