Somewhere in the process of recreating Dreamgirls, the usually-genius Robin Wagner's "set" became four LED panels lit up with hokey digital media designs by Howard Werner. Is this a producer-mandated approach to avoid costly carpenters, painters and materials? Or is this a respected scenic designer's technological experiment that isn't quite ready for prime time with pixilated, blurry visuals? When dark, but still in view, the panels loom over the stage like a prison wall. The creative team, cast and crew must have spent countless hours perfecting this battle between man and machine.
The only time the set seems appropriate is within the concert numbers written into the show. Otherwise, the video and atmospheric graphics are almost as distracting and unwieldy they were in Broadway Across America's Dirty Dancing last season.
Created by writer-lyricist Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls is the story of the Dreamettes, a fictional 1960s singing group whose rise to fame involves many growing pains and much behind-the-scenes drama. The main thrust of the narrative focuses on the tension between the conventionally beautiful Deena Jones (Syesha Mercado) and Effie White (Moya Angela), the group's vocal powerhouse. The group's four women are surrounded and mishandled by a group of testosterone-driven, egotistical men who are managers, promoters, producers and significant others.
Swallowed up by the Vegas-strip-styled visuals, the ensemble does its best to remind us that a play is going on, but to little avail. The emotional journeys of the characters are lost. The story is mostly reduced to back-and-forth whining and backstabbing that makes it difficult to like many of them, especially the self-centered men.
There is one performer who rises above it all. This is a testament to a strong, well-crafted character, some fine signature songs and the enormous talent that Angela brings full-heartedly to Effie White. While incorporating a few Holliday and Hudson conventions, Angela's Effie stands on her own. When the LED board is finally tucked away for a moment, Angela's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is a moving tribute to a woman's resilience. It begins as a plea to her no-good man, but this is not a pathetic display in the end. Angela knows Effie belts this song out to remind herself that we each deserve to be loved and respected.
Audiences may embrace this production more than me. There are some strong elements worth noting, including brilliant costumes by William Ivy Long and a roof-raising sound design by Acme Sound Partners, executed flawlessly by Michael Prieto, James Wilcox and David Romich. The opportunity to see Dreamgirls live on stage is rare, so you might decide to give it a chance anyway. You may not mourn the loss of paint, props and personality as I do.
Dreamgirlsruns through February 14 at the Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St. For tickets and information, call 800-982-2787, visit http://www.broadwayacrossamerica.com or stop by the box office. For details on $25 student and senior rush tickets, visit www.broadwayacrossamericaboston.com.
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