What a way to end the 2004 CLO Season - with a great big, high-spirited production of the rarely produced Dreamgirls. The electrifying and soulful score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen demands a vocally talented cast, above all, and this group delivers the goods. Appearing in the lead role as Effie White, Frenchie Davis is primarily known for being a popular contestant on TV's American Idol talent show. However, Davis is building a reputation as a stage performer that reflects her considerable talent and hard work. She is currently on hiatus from theatre studies at Howard University; comparing early reports (of the West Coast tour of Dreamgirls earlier this year and stints in Broadway's Rent) with her showing on the stage of the Benedum Center leads me to think she's putting her recent training to good use. Davis is able to provide an appealing and sassy character with a rapturous voice that sells every song without venturing too far into the wilds of the kind of pop vocalizing that can ruin a good song.

Montego Glover, Frenchie Davis, Vanita Harbour

Dreamgirls is, appropriately enough, about dreams realized and dreams lost. In the early days of the Motown sound, a girl group from Chicago, the Dreamettes, enter a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in New York. They don't win the contest, but they are offered the chance to sing backup for star singer Jimmy Early (Billy Porter). Deena (Vanita Harbour) and Lorrell (Montego Glover) are more than anxious to take this step, but Effie (Frenchie Davis), the strong voice in the group, doesn't want to sing backup. Quickly, Effie is won over by the charm of ambitious manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Norm Lewis) and seals the agreement for the three girls to sing behind Jimmy. In true dramatic fashion, the inevitable happens: the group makes it big, then breaks up over clashing egos, love betrayed, and the consequences of fame. By show's end, resolutions take place and the true bonds of friendship are restored.

The first act of Dreamgirls has so many showstoppers, the sense of excitement in the audience can be felt with the first chords of each song. This entire cast is so talented, the group songs, like "Cadillac Car," "Steppin' to the Bad Side," and "Family," are nearly as fulfilling as the solos. Billy

Billy Porter
Porter is in exceptional form as the James Brownesque James Thunder Early - this Jimmy definitely "got soul." Porter's voice is solid and he has the natural movements and high energy needed to be a crowd favorite. Porter has played the role before, and the experience shows in this performance, without being tired or over the top. Norm Lewis, who has the smoothest and richest voice I've ever heard, is also repeating his role of Curtis Taylor (in fact, Porter and Lewis played these roles in the well-received 2001 New York concert version of Dreamgirls, which is superbly preserved on disc by Nonesuch Records). Lewis just oozes charm, and his warm delivery of his songs (in particular, the beautiful "When I First Saw You") makes it understandable how both Effie and Deena could fall for Curtis, though he's essentially an opportunistic snake. As Effie's songwriter brother C.C., Ron Kellum is sweet and performs well, most notably in "Family."

Montego Glover is a real highlight as youngest Dreamette, Lorrell. She is cute and gawky early on, when Lorrell is childishly impressed by meeting singing star Jimmy, and shows Lorrell's growth later as she learns life's lessons the hard way. As Deena, the girl who "steals" Effie's dream of headlining the group, Vanita Harbour does an admirable job. Unfortunately, Harbour was the victim of sound problems on opening night; in one song, her lead singing was completely inaudible as her microphone was turned off for nearly the entire song. Frenchie Davis is just delightful as Effie White, showing the singer's strength and perseverance, even when her self-confidence is put to the test. When she gets to the signature song of this show, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Davis shows that confidence and puts forth a most thrilling delivery of a song that became legendary as performed by Jennifer Holiday in the original production. Davis makes the song her own, without replicating any other rendition and without adding too much embellishment. The three women (plus Manoly Farrell as Effie's replacement, Michelle) work very well together, showing friendship and loyalty, even when the characters have a difficult time getting along.

Supporting and ensemble work is excellent, a hallmark of CLO productions. Some of the Lesia Kaye's choreography was given less than perfect execution on opening night, but I'm certain the cast has polished their delivery after a few performances. Robin Wagner's original set design, consisting of four industrial columns of spotlights which are moved by cast members and a large collection of curtains, is good looking and functions well. Costumes, as originally designed by Theoni V. Aldredges, also hold up and fit well.

With such a solid score, Dreamgirls has shown it can be impressive in simply a concert setting. However, it's wonderful to see such a richly presented (and directed, by Robert Clater) production showcasing some very talented performers. This is a very sweet note on which to end another CLO season - and make us anticipate the next one.

Dreamgirls runs through August 22nd at the Benedum Center. For schedule and ticket information, call 412.456.6666 or visit www.pittsburghclo.org.

Photos: Matt Polk

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-- Ann Miner

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