Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of American Idiot
Full of glitz, glamour and a lot of drama, Dreamgirls is a musical classic with a score of nonstop showstopping songs that soar. It's also a beloved musical with a huge heart and identifiable characters you root to see succeed as they face bumps on the road to stardom. While the production at The Phoenix Theatre Company has some bumps of its own, including a cast that's somewhat uneven and a slightly uninspired set design and direction, it is still crowd-pleasing, due to the excellent performance of several cast members, including Miciah Lathan as the show's central character, Effie White.
Dreamgirls follows the story of the singing group The Dreams, a trio of three young Black women, Effie White (Miciah Lathan), Deena Jones (Candace Haynes) and Lorrell Robinson (Aja Downing), who find themselves facing many obstacles and challenges in their quest for success. When their conniving manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Will James Jr.) convinces them that pop music and not R&B is the way to future success in the recording industry, and pushes the beautiful and thin backup singer Deena to take over for the overweight and pushy lead singer Effie, it threatens to break them apart. Lorrell has problems of her own as she is in love with Jimmy Thunder Early (Antonio King), the older and married man the three girls start out singing back up for. Effie's brother C.C. (Brett Michael Lockley), who writes the songs for the girls and Jimmy, finds himself caught in the middle of all of the drama surrounding this close group of family members and friends.
The score (music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Tom Eyen) is a powerhouse combination of onstage performance numbers The Dreams, Early, and other musical groups sing in the show, soaring ballads, and sung dialogue sections that move the action along. The smart book by Eyen covers many years in the lives of Effie, Deena, and Lorrell, with well-written confrontations and moments that are additive to the overall thrust of the piece.
Director Daryl Brooks did great work last season at Phoenix Theatre with The Color Purple, but here his staging is slightly clunky, some of the lines are rushed, and some of the performances are somewhat lacking in emotion and originality. While the costumes by Mallory Prucha and hair and makeup by Nathaniel Jones are excellent, period-perfect designs, Sydney Lynne's set is uninspired, with a large, slightly elevated turntable at the center of the stage that rotates slowly several times throughout the production, but doesn't really add anything to the show. There are several tall flats that light up and rotate, but even those aren't used for much effect.
Fortunately, most of the cast are quite good, which helps offset some of this production's shortcomings. The highlights include Miciah Lathan's powerhouse portrayal of Effie White and Antonio King's crowd-pleasing performance as Jimmy Thunder Early. Lathan and King elevate the production whenever they are on stage. Lathan's soaring performance includes stirring renditions of two Broadway showstoppers, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I Am Changing." Both are performed with strength, passion and emotion. King brings a consistent sense of showmanship to his performance, while also giving Early depth and layers that go beyond the one-note, over-the-top, humorous portrayals of the character I've seen in other productions.
The hardworking ensemble create a continuous parade of characters that also help offset some of the quibbles I have with the show. Music director Kevin Robert White derives smart notes from the cast and a great sound from the orchestra, and choreography by Christopher Chase Carter is danced well by the cast.
Dreamgirls runs through September 3, 2023, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Director/Musical Staging: Daryl Brooks
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.