Also see Tim's review of The Philly Fan
Originally staged on Broadway in 1981 by the legendary Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls tells the story of the Dreamettes, a trio of teenagers striving for R&B stardom in the 1960s. The show follows them as they seek fame at the Apollo Theatre, land work as backup singers for a top star, then break out as stars in their own right. But, as always seems to happen in backstage show business narratives, fame and fortune has a price: the Dreamettes compromise their style and their dreams, destroying their friendship. Will things work out in the end? Will our girls find happiness?
On the face of it, a plot like that doesn't seem too interesting. Indeed, Dreamgirls does get bogged down at times with melodrama, especially in scenes where the singers get involved with guys who are just no good. (The exposition-heavy book and lyrics by the late Tom Eyen are sometimes too corny and clunky to be convincing; some lines even received unintended laughter at the performance I attended.) What saves Dreamgirls are two things: its observations about the entertainment business and how it represents the best and worst of the American dream, and the show's score. Henry Krieger's music is still exciting nearly a quarter century after the show's debut, a blend of soul sizzle and Broadway pizzazz. The Prince's production is at its best when it spotlights that score, delivered by a strong cast that makes it seem fresh.
The standout performer is Eugene Fleming, ideal for the part of the charismatic star James Thunder Early, who hires the Dreamettes as his backup singers. Fleming's performance has more than a few touches of James Brown and Jackie Wilson, but Fleming is no copycat; he's a unique, ingratiating performer in his own right who makes you understand why audiences - and the ladies who sing behind him - find him irresistible. Also impressive is Chaunteé Schuler as Deena, who takes over as the group's lead singer in order to make the team more palatable to a mass (i.e., white) audience. The parallels to the career of The Supremes have always been blatantly obvious in Dreamgirls, but Schuler makes them more so with a performance that seems at times to be a loving parody of Diana Ross' style.
Other terrific performances come from Kevyn Morrow as the agent who pushes the group to the top; CJay Hardy Philip as Lorrell, the group's third member, who takes a backseat to no one; and Brian Anthony Wilson as Marty, the assistant who seems like a yes man at first but turns out to be stronger than anyone realizes.
Any production of Dreamgirls succeeds or fails on the strength of its Effie. Effie Melody White is the heroine who leads the group in its early days but is pushed aside in its climb to the top (in another parallel to The Supremes and its ouster of founding member Flo Ballard). The role demands a powerful performer, one who can be convincing and sympathetic, yet belt as powerfully as Jennifer Holliday did so memorably in the original production. As act one neared a close, and the audience primed itself for Effie's titanic solo "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going," the tension in the theater grew: How was Nova Y. Payton going to do singing one of the most challenging numbers in musical theater? The answer: Pretty damn good. Payton's voice is a wonder, nearly as strong as Holliday's. It's impossible to be unmoved by the torrent of emotion she conveys in this song. If her acting in the dramatic scenes isn't yet at the smooth, effortless level of her co-stars, it hardly matters; it's her thrilling singing that wins over the audience.
Director Richard M. Parison, Jr. gets nuanced performances from nearly every member of his cast, and scene changes are made efficiently, without any pause in the action. Only one scene is staged poorly: the second act "Quintet," in which five singers take turns singing in three simultaneous scenes. Hampered by the small size of the Prince stage, Parison puts his actors on two balconies on either side of the stage. This forces audience members to keep pivoting their heads left and right - as if they were watching a tennis match - to follow the action.
Mercedes Ellington's choreography for the lead characters is excellent, especially when the men lead the company in a stark, chilling version of "Steppin' to the Bad Side." At times, however, a few members of the male ensemble seem to have a hard time keeping up, which ruins the harmonious effect on numbers such as "Got to Be Good Times" and "Goin' Downtown." Mark Mariani's costumes precisely capture the eras the story covers, subtly changing as the story moves from the sixties into the seventies. Even the wigs (designed by Jason Hayes) manage to get a few laughs in the way they evoke their eras. And the orchestra, conducted by Jesse Vargas, pulsates with a sound so full that it's surprising to find it has only eleven musicians.
At its core, Dreamgirls is a salute to one of the most exciting periods in American music. The show treats the African American performers of that era with affection, but reminds the audience of the sacrifices they had to make to succeed. The depiction of those hardships isn't always handled well, yet even when the show occasionally degenerates into melodrama, it's never boring. The Prince's Dreamgirls manages, at its best, to be genuinely exhilarating - thanks in large part to a cast that is as vibrant and vital as the music it celebrates.
Dreamgirls has been extended through Sunday, January 15, 2006 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $40 to $50 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-569-9700, online at www.princemusictheater.org, or in person at the box office.