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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Supreme Dreamgirls Dazzles at the Paramount

Dreamgirls
Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Syesha Mercado, Adrienne Warren, Moya Angela, Chester Gregory, Trevon Davis
Fans of great musical theatre, dazzling production values, and great performances take heed! The new touring production of Dreamgirls, which opened Tuesday night at the Paramount, delivers all the above, and more. This scribe was lucky enough to see the unsurpassed original Michael Bennett Broadway production of the show back in 1981, and was also a fan of the faithful film adaptation. This version, vibrantly directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, doesn't try to reinvent the show (and owes much to Michael Bennett's Tony winning original work), but certainly reinvigorates it. It satisfies in every sense, and is truly one of the finest productions to grace the Seattle Paramount Theatre's stage in many moons.

However much of a roman clef of the lives of Diana Ross and the Supremes Dreamgirls is, the book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger are in that rarified class of great show-biz themed musicals, side by side the likes of Gypsy and A Chorus Line. A two and one-half hour musical chronicling the rise of a Supremes-like musical group from the early sixties through the mid-1970s, the story is at its heart, that of three little girls with big voices and bigger dreams, and their tumultuous relationships with one and other, as well as the men in their lives.

The charismatic but oh so manipulative Curtis Taylor, Jr. latches onto the girls at a talent contest, initially getting them in as back-up singers for established male headliner James Thunder Early, but all the while grooming them for their own act. Brassy, sassy Effie White is the vocal and emotional center of the Dreamettes (ultimately shortened to the Dreams) and is romanced by Curtis, until he decides the sleeker, softer Deena Jones should take the lead spot, relegating Effie to backup as he also replaces her with Deena in his love life. Meanwhile, Lorrell Robinson, the baby of the group, has her own heartaches to contend with, becoming the longtime mistress of Jimmy Early. Effie's frustrations at being relegated to the background soon leads to her total breakdown, and she is replaced by the glamorous Michelle Morris, who becomes the woman in the life of Effie's songwriter younger brother, CC. Seven emotion-charged years later, Effie makes a comeback, Deena decides to leave both Curtis and the Dreams, and Lorrell finally tells Jimmy to take a hike. The curtain rings down on the bittersweet final Dreams concert where all four Dreamgirls say goodbye to one another as well as their adoring fans. Not like the final Supremes concert, but a much more crowd-pleasing way to end the show.

Those who know both the original show and movie will note some musical alterations in the show's tune-list, but they are all for the better, especially the re-working of the song "Listen" (written to bolster Beyonce's on-screen role as Deena; music by Krieger with a Willie Reale lyric) is more suitably reconceived here as a heartfelt duet of reconciliation between Deena and Effie. One could not ask for a more satisfying trio of actress/singers to play the Dreams than Longbottom found for this incarnation. Moya Angela is more than up to the demands the role of Effie makes of her, bursting exuberantly onstage to lead the group's talent contest rouser "Move," showing the hurt and disappointment that Effie feels as Curtis displaces her in the group and his heart, and tackling the vocally overwhelming "And I am Telling You" with a softer vocal approach than one might expect, which allows her to create more audience empathy for Effie. Angela shines through act two with "I Am Changing" and "One Night Only," and connects beautifully with Syesha Mercado's Deena for "Listen." Mercado, a stunner with a look that is equal parts Diana Ross and a young Eartha Kitt, expertly etches the character of a mama's girl who gets caught up in the glamour of her own stardom, then finds way back to her inner core even as she moves on from her Svengali-like relationship with Curtis. Her vocals are even more solid than her "American Idol" credentials might lead one to expect, and she brings strong emotion to her scenes with Chaz Lamar Sheperd's Curtis. Adrienne Warren twinkles incandescently as Lorrell, the baby of the trio, and she packs a real wallop with her featured number "Ain't No Party," the one major number from the score that was sadly omitted from the film version.

The two leading men of this Dreamgirls are major talents in their own right. Chester Gregory radiates charisma and star power as James "Thunder" Early with rousing musical moments galore from "Fake Your Way to the Top" to "The Rap." Granted, Jimmy Early is the showiest of the men's roles, but Gregory goes the distance and more, in a triumphant return to Seattle, which saw him create (and then be unceremoniously replaced for Broadway) the role of Donkey in the Shrek tryout two seasons back. The irony is that, in both roles, his challenge was to compete with the audience's identification with Eddie Murphy on film; Gregory's Jimmy Early is more flamboyant, a more accomplished singer/dancer and so charming that it makes Lorrell's sticking with him all the more believable. In the tricky role of Curtis, Chaz Lamar Shepherd creates a slick, conniving yet still somehow human and somewhat sympathetic character, whose redeeming feature, and ultimate undoing, is his true love for Deena. Shepherd's lyrical rendition of "When I First Saw You" is a tender musical highlight of the production.

In staunch supporting turns, Trevon Davis is most appealing and matures believably as Effie's younger brother C.C., Margaret Hoffman brings a considerable presence and voice to the dramatically undernourished role of Michelle Morris, and Milton Craig Nealy, a veteran of the original production, is in top form as Jimmy's beleaguered original manager, Marty. The ensemble of this production shines throughout the evening, bringing real passion and excitement to such numbers as "Cadillac Car" and especially "Stepping to the Bad Side."

The technical aspects of this production cannot be praised sufficiently. Robin Wagner's scenic design is dominated by five LED video panels that enhance the always varied cinematic flow of the show, and Ken Billington's lighting design is in a class by itself. William Ivey Long's never-ending array of amazing and amusing costumes take us through a cavalcade of sixties and seventies looks and fads, as do Paul Huntley's hairstyles. Special kudos to Acme Sound Partners for an impressive sound design, and the inspired Media design by Howard Werner of Lightswitch. Sam Davis' masterful musical direction honors the savory Harold Wheeler orchestrations, and vocal arrangements by David Chase and (original Broadway cast Jimmy Early) Cleavant Derricks remain astounding.

No one who loves truly exciting musical theatre should miss this Dreamgirls during its too brief Seattle stay. Tear down a mountain, yell, scream and shout, but do whatever you can to get to the Paramount by Sunday.

Dreamgirls runs through April 11, The Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $27-$70. For more information call 877-784-4849 or go to www.stgpresnts.org.


Photo: Joan Marcus

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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