Also see Scott's review of Ordinary Days
Applying different direction and design to a well-known hit musical is always a risk, and especially when it's a show such as Dreamgirls, which has both a successful movie version and a widely praised original staging with which to compare. However, the national tour of the show currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, proves that, with well-written material as your foundation, a new take can offer some fresh perspectives and a renewed appreciation for the piece and its powerful messages.
Dreamgirls is the story of the Dreamettes, a trio of young African-American women (Effie, Deena and Lorrell) trying to make it in showbiz in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. These ladies have talent and, with the assistance of four men, 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, and often integrates both together. The action flows quickly, and sufficient drama, humor and pathos keep the interest level of the piece high.
The show's score has music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by the late 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 sufficiently, 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 quality 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." Also of interest to fans of the show is the fact that "Listen", which was written for the film version, has been reworked with new lyrics by Willie Reale and inserted into the show as a book song, chronicling the reconciliation of Effie and Deena late in the second act.
This tour is extremely well cast from top to bottom. In the lead role of Effie White, Moya Angela displays a suitably big and rich voice which she puts to great use, but also convincingly portrays an authentic, strong black woman of the era. She conveys the angst and emotional ups and downs of the role well, though showing a bit more fragility might make her breakdown at the end of act one even more believable. As Deena Jones, American Idol alum Syesha Mercado sings well and aptly takes the character from innocent dreamer to a confident and independent star. Adrienne Warren captures the spunk and ambition of Lorrell accurately, and shows off her vocal chops in her big act two number "Ain't No Party." As Michelle, a replacement member of the trio, Margaret Hoffman shines in her limited stage time in the role, displaying especially clear diction and a regal demeanor.
Dreamgirls also provides opportunities for its four lead male performers. Chaz Lamar Shepherd powerfully captures the charm, drive and ruthless aspiration of the group's manipulative manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. Understudy Chauncey Jenkins is a bit tentative as Effie's brother C.C., but is overall suitable. Turning in an extremely crowd-pleasing performance is Chester Gregory as James "Jimmy Thunder" Early. Showcasing boundless energy, gravity-defying dance moves, roof-raising vocals, and an over-the-top flamboyance perfect for the role, Mr. Gregory (Tarzan, Cry Baby) embodies the role delightfully. As Jimmy's old-school manager Marty, Milton Craig Nealy shows off the poise and timing of the seasoned theater vet he is. The remaining ensemble members are excellent in support of these eight leading performers.
Director Robert Longbottom supplies an appropriately intense tone, vibrant transitions, and unique (though still effective) blocking for the piece. It can't be easy to inject a different approach to material so closely connected with an original helmer like Michael Bennett, but Mr. Longbottom's direction works for the piece. He has garnered passionate performances from his cast too. The only major quibble is a surprisingly slow first twenty minutes. The choreography by Longbottom and Shane Sparks is first rate in every respect and a joy to watch. In the evening's best moment, "Steppin' To the Bad Side" skillfully combines the best of Longbottom's direction, visually stunning dance moves, and playfully integrated design elements to create one hell of a "wow" moment by the end of the song.
In addition to new direction, the other major difference in this version is the scenic design. Original production designer Robin Wagner has retooled his own set with media designer Howard Werner to use five hanging LED panels that spin, drop, and magnificently light up the back wall to represent various settings for the show. When this is done well, the effect is stunning. However, there are a few moments that come off a bit too cheesy. Even worse, there are many scenes where the panels are dark, and the design (or lack thereof) is especially drab and boring in comparison. The showbiz lighting by Ken Billington is expectedly first rate, and the costumes by William Ivey Long are often breathtakingly beautiful and extremely varied. Special mention must be made to Paul Huntley for his numerous and apt wigs throughout.
Dreamgirls is a great musical with a powerful story and exciting songs. The new design elements and directorial approach on its current national tour aren't perfect, but work together with the piece's pre-existing strengths to make it a rewarding experience. Throw in a solid cast like the one that's been assembled here, and you've got yourself a crowd pleasing hit.
Dreamgirls continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through June 20, 2010. For tickets, call 513-621-2787.