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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela, and Adrienne Warren.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Apollo Theater, the heart of African-American music in New York, and Dreamgirls, one of Broadway's finest musicals about African-Americans, surely must be a match made in theatrical heaven. Admittedly, Robert Longbottom's new mounting of the show, which is playing at the Apollo through December 12 before embarking on a national tour, could be a bit better. But this is still a rip-roaring way to kick off the holiday season without seeing an actual Christmas show.

The mere fact that Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 musical has been given an 85-percent production after the heavier stumbles of the 2006 film adaptation is almost gift enough. Granted, given the original's four-year run, its almost immediate revival on Broadway, and the starry 2001 Actors' Fund concert, the show has never really gone away, but Longbottom, despite a few lapses in judgment, has taken significant steps to ensure that it stays at the forefront of our consciousness for the foreseeable future.

Initially acclaimed as much for its scintillating Michael Bennett staging as for its content, Longbottom conclusively proves with his reconsideration that the show indeed is the thing. He treats with sincere reverence the story of a poor Chicago singing trio, the Dreamettes (more than a little like the Supremes), who rise from obscure entrants in the Apollo's talent competition to the top of American pop popularity, become the Dreams, and discover that artistic and spiritual fulfillment never come without price tags.

Whether following Effie White (Moya Angela), the super-talented but soul-oriented central Dreamette, or Deena Jones (Syesha Mercado), the beautiful backup singer whom the group's persuasive manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) shoves into the star spot against her (and Effie's) wishes, Longbottom makes you keenly aware of the personal and professional stakes with which they're all grappling.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Adrienne Warren, Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela, Chester Gregory, and Trevon Davis.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Effie's brother and songwriter, C.C. (Trevon Davis), is tormented by Curtis's ever-flattening his hard-edged music. The third Dream, Lorrell Robinson (Adrienne Warren), is enticed and enraged by a seven-year affair with Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Chester Gregory), the James Brown-like singer with whom the Dreamettes are initially associated - and who finds his own woes as Curtis tries to suppress his style for the benefit of white listeners. And as what once seemed to be the tightest-knit of makeshift families rips itself apart with petty jealousies and betrayals, Longbottom cranks up the heat, the anger, and the angst.

Not that he needs to do much - Krieger's music and Eyen's book and lyrics are so packed, charting the building and shattering of dreams and Dreams alike, the show needs only to unwind to succeed, which Longbottom allows with a minimum of intervention. Aiding him are scenic designer Robin Wagner, who's rethought his own set for the original production with media designer Howard Werner as a series of cold-looking but dynamic LED drops that parade, spin, and embrace the neon, video, and imaginations that ignite the characters; William Ivey Long's crisply glitzy costumes; and Ken Billington's precisely savage lights. Longbottom has even preserved the spirit of two of Bennett's legendarily lightning-fast costume changes.

Yes, everything needed for a great staging of the show is here. What's missing is the breathless kineticism that should keep the show forever moving like a just-fired bullet. Longbottom has, in every way, surpassed his own recent work on other lamentable revivals, whether the current Bye Bye Birdie or 2002's Flower Drum Song. But he hasn't recaptured the conceptual triumph he had with Side Show or equaled Bennett's kind of go-for-broke magic.

Lines are both savored and given unimaginative readings. Cues are muddy or poorly planned; several key lines are lost under audience applause or laughter. And some scene wipes, including one of musical theatre's most famous at the end of Act I, take a second longer than they should. If the delay isn't deadly, it's dispiriting in a show that wants nothing more than to be in constant motion. Longbottom's other attempts at streamlining, such as deleting the ethereal "It's just show-biz" choruses and reducing and defanging Curtis's climactic, painful monologue, are solutions to nonexistent problems.

These minor quibbles can be easily remedied, but some bigger changes pose more threatening problems. A revamped Act II opening sequence merges elements of earlier versions with a listless new song called "What Love Can Do," but without the title song to pinpoint the malodorous mainstreaming of the once-distinctive Dreams, the whole scene feels pointless. Although the idea of a Deena-Effie confrontation number in Act II isn't necessarily bad, "Listen" - written for the film, augmented with new lyrics by Willie Reale - grinds the show to a too-generic female-empowerment halt. And as long as insertions are being made, why not effect one for Effie's replacement Dream, Michelle Morris (Margaret Hoffman), who's always propelled the second act but never had a solo of her own?

Though all the performers have voices sufficient to overcome the Motown-heated songstack, the emotional underpinnings appear only intermittently. You sense them from start to finish in the saucy Warren, whose Lorrell makes the most visible journey from girl to woman, and Shepherd's Curtis, who magnetically struggles the whole evening to suppress the rage that drives him to both fame and infamy. But Davis seems a trifle disinterested as the put-upon C.C., Gregory shallowly affected (if hilarious) as Jimmy, and Mercado slightly too strong-willed to convince as a young woman destined to spend her 20s being played by others.

And, of course, there's Angela, in the most difficult and expectation-laden role that brought awards, plaudits, and career-launching recognition to Jennifer Holliday onstage and Jennifer Hudson on film. She's got the rumbly power alto necessary to fuel the likes of "Move (You're Steppin' on My Heart)," "I Am Changing," and "One Night Only," to say nothing of the centerpiece to end all centerpieces, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." But she conveys only a fraction of the desperate fragility that gives the song the rich contrast it needs to be truly heartbreaking - and Effie her most daunting obstacles to surmount.

During Angela's rendition, you're aware that she's aware she's helming a showstopper, which blunts the impact of a cry for help that should send you searing all the way through Act II. It's thrilling, no question, but doesn't pierce as deeply as it should. Both things are true of the rest of this production - at least for now. But if Longbottom can smooth out his few rough patches, this tour could easily transform into a true dream of a Dreamgirls.

Through December 12
Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell (7th Avenue) & Frederick Douglass Blvd (8th Avenue)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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