Dreamgirls at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Also see David's review of The Time of Your Life
"We're your Dreamgirls, boys, we'll make you happy ... " goes the Tom Eyen lyric for the title song to Dreamgirls, set to a pulsating tune by Henry (Side Show) Krieger. Seeing this show again did indeed make me happy, even as I was enveloped in the memory of seeing it on Broadway in 1981 as the last completed masterwork of director/choreographer Michael Bennett. It's a mixed blessing that this co-production of the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre, California Musical Theatre and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, directed by Mark S. Hoebee and choreographed by (original Broadway cast member) Brenda Braxton hews so closely to Bennett's much admired original staging. But since many, if indeed most, audience members will not have the phantoms of the original production and its cast lurking in the shadows of their brains, this Dreamgirls has much to recommend it.
Tom Eyen's book and lyrics and Henry Krieger's music are actually closer to a Motown-inspired opera than a conventional musical, as Dreamgirls charts the personal and professional paths of a very Supremes-like musical group, their friends and family. Most of the songs not only advance the plot but also serve as numbers that send the group, initially known as the Dreamettes and later the Dreams, to the top of the pop charts as their relationships zigzag downward. There are precious few moments that are not underscored, and the dialogue is more or less recitative (the pop-styled original Broadway cast album does not reflect this at all). Dreamgirls demands to be well sung and danced, and this production definitely is - but it falls short in the acting department, primarily in two key roles, and this more than anything else keeps the production from being an unqualified success.
As Effie, the chubby and insecure Dream who loses her lead spot in the group, as well as her man, to her Diana Ross-like chum Deena, Frenchie Davis definitely has a big, soulful voice, and it is best deployed here on her act two opener "I Am Changing," which she starts small and builds to a boisterous climax. Davis, however, is not a trained actress or the force of nature that young Jennifer Holliday was when Effie has her emotional collapse in the act one finale/aria "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." David Jennings as Curtis Taylor, Jr., the self-styled Svengali who uses every dirty showbiz trick in the book to assure Deena and the Dreams' rise to the top, is an admirable vocalist as well, especially on "When I First Saw You," yet his characterization falters in showing us the kind of charisma that initially wins him the hearts of Effie and Deena.
Angela Robinson as Deena has both the vocal skills and the acting chops to show us her character's journey from shy backup singer to assured headliner with a mind of her own. As Lorell, the third original Dream, Ramona Keller clicks from the get-go with her kewpie doll vocal delivery and her unerring instinct for getting an honest laugh. Keller's vocal showcase, "Ain't No Party," is an act two highlight, and she is partnered well by Harrison White, whose James Thunder Early is vocally outstanding and emotionally well balanced between humor and pathos.
Another fine contribution comes from Andre Garner, sweet-voiced and sympathetic as Effie's songwriter baby brother who leads the principals in the show's hauntingly tender ensemble ballad, "Family." As Michelle Morris, Effie's replacement in the Dreams, Rosena M. Hill scores in an underwritten role, and Regi Davis makes the most of his few moments as Early's original manager, Marty.
Choreographer Braxton neatly preserves the Bennett staging of such rousingly dramatic numbers as "Cadillac Car" and "Steppin' to the Bad Side," and makes sure that the specter of Diana Ross and the Supremes hover in the air throughout the Dreams sequences. Director Hoebee's handling of the lengthy sequence into "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is notably effective. Marc Falcone's musical direction does justice to the grand Harold Wheeler orchestrations, and it is a credit to sound designer Robert Sereno that the sometimes troubling sound system at the 5th was in fairly good shape for most of the opening night performance.
The uncredited scenic design was obviously inspired by Robin Wagner's stellar original design, though the lighting towers (used to create the various locales) in this production looked rather skimpy and built for the efficacy of touring. Tom Sturge's lighting design is enormously effective, however, as are the glittery costumes (designs obviously based on, or borrowed from, the original, as the only credit is for additional costumes by Steven Howard and Bob Miller).
It's great to see the a full production of this show again, even with its shortcomings, and with it, 5th Avenue's Artistic director David Armstrong's own dream of bringing Seattle "the best musical you've never seen" is happily realized, and will hopefully be supported by local audiences.Dreamgirls runs through February 29 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, in downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th Avenue Theatre on-line at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.