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Chicago by John Olson

Dreamgirls
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's reviews of A Dream Unfolds and Killer Joe

Dreamgirls
Chester Gregory, Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela and Adrienne Warren
There was a time when feature films were the last stop before musicals went to live forever in amateur productions and summer stock. No more. A Chicago, Mamma Mia!, or Phantom can open on the big screen in the midst of a long run on Broadway, or in this case a film version released 25 years after its Broadway opening can spark enough interest to fund a big new flashy stage production. Never having seen the original, I jumped at the chance to see Dreamgirls for the first time on stage. While I must rely on the accounts of others to compare it to the legendary stagecraft of the original, the current national tour that opened at New York's Apollo Theater in November and hit Chicago for a two-week stand on January 19th, is itself a visual stunner. In its imaginative scenic, lighting and projection designs that suggest a multitude of locations over a 13-year period from 1962-75, and hundreds of costumes befitting a trio of pop-music divas and their entourages, this Dreamgirls shows how the magic of stagecraft can surprise in a way a big-budget feature film no longer can.

Like the original, the new production uses no realistic sets to show locations for the story of the rise and disbanding of the Dreams, a fictional Motown girl group that looks and sounds like the Supremes. Robin Wagner's original concept of a series of aluminum towers and bridges moving into various configurations to suggest locale has been updated by Mr. Wagner himself, with video displays added to the mix to move us seamlessly from location to location. Here, Wagner has designed a series of panels that rotate and fly to represent different places or different perspectives on the same place. Side by side and facing straight forward, they can be an upstage curtain behind performers at the Apollo. Rotate them to a 45-degree angle, move the performers behind them and we're watching the same action from the Apollo's wings. At other points, combined with the media design of Howard Werner, thousands of tiny LED bulbs on the panels display video aerial shots of Las Vegas or Paris or of a jet approaching an airport runway, then switch instantly into stage lighting effects backing up the Dreams in concert, with the help of kliegs and other dramatic lighting effects designed by Ken Billington. The cast of 26 wears hundreds of stunning costumes by William Ivey Long.

Director Robert Longbottom has assembled a cast that mostly provides the necessary flash to match the production design. Moya Angela, a veteran of The Lion King road companies, is their Effie. She has the pipes for her big numbers, and offers a slightly more mature and empowered Effie than the takes we've seen from Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holliday. In "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," we tend to believe her intentions rather than hearing the words as those of a desperate and delusional person. We see her in the early scenes as the real leader of the Dreams, not just the lead singer. Syesha Mercado, an "American Idol" runner-up, is solid as the Diana Ross prototype Deena Jones—regal, elegant and more than capable in her sultry and sexy pop vocal deliveries. Mercado and Angela get a powerful duet in a reworked version of "Listen," an original number written for the film version. With new lyrics by Willie Reale, "Listen" gives weight to the reconciliation of Effie and Deena, better setting up the finale at the Dreams farewell/reunion concert. As Lorrell, Adrienne Warren is a warm and funny down-to-earth complement to the two drama queens of the trio.

Among the men, the breakout is Chester Gregory, a graduate of Chicago's Columbia College who was a replacement Seaweed in Broadway's Hairspray, as James "Thunder" Early. He makes the most of this great role—arrogant when Jimmy is at the top of his game, charming when he needs to be and totally out of control in his second act breakdown during a Democratic Party fundraiser. Chaz Lamar Shepherd is serviceable as Curtis, manager to all three Dreamgirls, lover to two and husband to one. He fails, though, to completely show the charisma Curtis would need in order to persuade so many to do his bidding in romance or business. Trevon Davis is a likable C.C. White, while Milton Craig Nealy, true Broadway royalty as a member of the original and revival casts of Dreamgirls and Once on This Island, is a solid Marty.

Longbottom choreographed along with Shane Sparks and the two have provided some striking dances that combine genres and eras, to give the moves a fresh and contemporary feel in spite of its period setting. Their extended staging of "Steppin' to the Bad Side," covering the creation of the song for Jimmy, its rehearsal and performance and a representation of Curtis' illegal payola activities is epic. Longbottom deserves much credit for his visualization of the show, including the inventive ways he blocks the action around the brilliantly conceived set. Perhaps in comparison to breakneck editing of the film version, though, the action seems to drag at points—particularly in the spoken book scenes of the first act. It may be difficult or impossible to reconcile the tone of these scenes with the showier elements of the musical. Bookwriter Tom Eyen's dialogue, in the relatively few scenes when it is spoken, feels too natural for the presentational delivery of Longbottom's cast. That delivery is essential for the musical numbers but comes off somewhat wooden in the spoken scenes.

As amazing a ride as the production values provide, this touring incarnation does show how strong is the writing of Eyen and composer Henry Krieger. It makes one wonder what it might be like to see a more intimate production where we could get closer to the characters and hear their words without amplification. Some of Chicago's off-Loop directors were in the audience on opening night, and let's hope they're asking the same questions. Dreamgirls, with its four-year Broadway run, slew of Tonys and a popular film version, is perhaps Broadway's least-performed bona fide classic. We waited a long time for this top-shelf stage revival. With any luck Dreamgirls will soon get to be a standard.

Dreamgirls will be performed at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, through January 31, 2010. For tickets, visit any Broadway in Chicago box office, any Ticketmaster retail location, or order online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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