Frenchie Davis Wows 'em in Dreamgirls
Dreamgirls first opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York on December 20, 1981 to rave reviews. The musical was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won six, including three out of the four musical acting awards. Jennifer Holliday, who won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical as the ardent Effie, was made an overnight star. The highly praised musical ran for 1521 performances. I saw the original during the winter of 1981 and Jennifer Holiday blew me away.
Krieger and Eyen's musical has had successful revivals, including the recent sold out concert version in New York. Many regional theaters have presented the musical with great success, including the local regional company Willows Theatre who produced a smashing production of the fast paced musical several years ago.
This high voltage show is loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, and it follows the journey of three talented singers from Chicago as they go from nowhere to superstardom, replacing one member on the way up. The young and inexperienced members of the Dreamettes are lead singer Effie (Frenchie Davis), Deena (Angela Robinon) and Lorrell (Ramona Keller). They appear on Harlem's Apollo stage in 1962 and become backup singers for soul singer James Thunder Early (Harrison White). The Dreamettes become a success thanks to Effie's younger brother C.C. White's (Andre Garner) hit composition. Their manager Curtis (David Jennings) uses doggedness and payola to get the group into the main line music scene of the early '60s.
Dreamgirls marries a story of glamour, integrity and betrayal, and this glitzy production is in constant fluid motion, from the beginning on the stage of the Harlem Apollo to the ending ten years later in Hollywood. The Motown influenced score has over 30 musical numbers used for specialties and dramatic dialogue. There is very little spoken dialogue so you could call it an operetta with a Motown beat.
Henry Krieger's score has that vibrant Motown beat that becomes infectious though sometimes the lyrics by Eyen become somewhat garbled in the first act. The opening scene in The Apollo Theatre is very confused since the sound man gave all of those persons on stage shrill sounds that pierce the ears. It is a key scene to establish the musical, and the recitative becomes too rapid with the actors talking over each other. The orchestra plays loudly and the lyrics are lost. However, things start to smooth over when David Jennings and company brilliantly sing "Cadillac Car," which is a startling song that tells of the African American of the '60s who wants to be part of the world of The Man: "If the big white man can make us think we need his Cadillac to make us feel as good as him, we can make him think he needs our music to make him as good as us." The show's direction under Mark S. Hoebee has now found its bearings.
Frenchie Davis as Effie is charismatic with an amazing powerful voice. Effie was originally the lead singer, but had to give up her spot to Deena because Curtis (who Effie loves deeply) wants a lead singer with a svelte look. Effie's undying love for the slick manager is heartfelt in the first act. Effie has temper tantrums and finally a nervous breakdown, and is forced to leave the group. Davis brings down the house when she sings "And I Am Telling I'm Not Going." You can see and feel her blistering pain of losing the man she deeply loves. This is truly one of the great moments of this theatre season. Davis is also marvelous in her song in the second act, "One Night Only."
Harrison White as the soul rocker James Thunder Early rolls some lightning into his character. He ranges from James Brown to Little Richard with just a little Michael Jackson thrown in. David Jennings (2002 Ovation nominee for Side Show) as the shifty manager Curtis is brilliant. He has a superb voice that is bell clear and his diction and projection are excellent.
Angela Robinson as Deena gives a consistently shaped performance as the Diana Ross figure. Ramona Keller has her moments both vocal and dramatic as the unlucky-in-love Lorrell. Rosena M. Hill as Michelle, the girl who replaces Effie, also has a great doo-wop voice. Andre Garner as C.C. is excellent in the role of the composer brother.
One of the most outstanding features of this production is the choreography by Brenda Braxton (seen on Broadway as Velma Kelly in Chicago and received a Tony nomination for Smokey Joe's Café). The choreography has that terrific '60s beat, and one of the great highlights is having a faux '60s rock and roll band with some amazing dancers. The moves they make while "playing" instruments is absolutely astonishing. It brings you right back into the turbulent period of the 1960s. The talented dancers include Carmichael Blankenship (he played Curtis in the Willows production), Wilkie Ferguson III, Clifton Oliver, Edwin G. Urbi, Titus West and Ted Zervoulakos.
Production Stage Manager Bob Bones has minimal yet flexible sets to give us rapid montages of performances, front and back stage. This is accomplished by rotating four towers of lights before a series of backdrops. The full orchestra under the direction of Marc Falcone has the Motown beat down but, as mentioned, was a little too loud in the opening scenes. Direction by Mark S. Hoebee is fast paced and right on the mark.
Once the production gets the sound situation straighten out and the actors get more into the roles, this will be a superb production. Dreamgirls runs through January 25 at the San Jose Performing Arts Center. 255 Almaden Blvd, San Jose, Ca For tickets call 888-455-7469 or 408-453-7108 or tickets are available at www.amtsj.org.
AMT's next production is Webber's Starlight Express, which opens next month.