THE CAST IS GREAT, BUT THE BOOK AND THE STAGING ARE NOT SO DREAMY
Dreamgirls is based on the rise of the Supremes, America’s premiere girl singing group of the 1960’s. The musical opened on Broadway in 1981, won six Tony awards, and ran for nearly four years. Since then, the Michael Bennett musical has only two documented Chicagoland productions, both in suburban theaters. One of those productions was presented at the Marriott Theatre in 1995; now, the theater is reviving Dreamgirls after 17 years in a version distinguished by plenty of high voltage singing, but not enough to disguise the musical’s weaknesses, most of which reside in a lame book by Tom Eyen. A curiously stodgy staging is a further impediment to an evening that turns into a pretty long sit for the audience, even with a stage full of belting voices giving their all.
Dreamgirls tells the familiar show business story of young performers who struggle to get their first break, rise to the top, and then fragment through internal dissension, only to reunite in time for an emotional final number. Even though the story is inspired by real people and events, its saga of backstage betrayals and backbiting and the perils of success oozes cliché.
In Dreamgirls, the Supremes are now a black girl trio initially called the Dreamettes. They travel, wide-eyed and innocent, from Chicago to New York City to break into show business at one of the famous Apollo Theatre talent contests in Harlem. The girls catch the eye of an ambitious, conniving manager named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (read: Motown mogul Berry Gordy), who renames them the Dreams and guides them to the top of the rhythm and blues market, using a combination of payola and chutzpa. One of the Dreams is a heavyset, powerful-voiced diva named Effie White. She becomes Taylor’s mistress until he decides she is too heavy and too loud (and by implication, too black) to fit into the glamorous image he seeks for the Dreams so they can break out of the ghetto of black music into the more remunerative and classy world of pop. So he bounces Effie from the group and she does not go quietly.
Effie tries to start her own career and eventually makes it as a star solo singer, a fate unfortunately that didn’t follow her real life counterpart in the Supremes, Florence Ballard. After Ballard left the trio she fell off the show business radar and died in obscurity at the age of 32.
Composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Eyen created a score dominated by rhythm and blues and soul, with garnishes of pop music. The music is divided between staged numbers performed by the Dreams and a James Brown-style soul singer named James Thunder Early and vocalized dialogue. The decibel count is high and so is the dramatic and emotional content. Lovers of high-octane black music will love the show. The audience certainly expressed their roaring approval throughout the opening night performance, reflecting a generous tolerance for the ponderous narrative and two-dimensional characters.
Effie White is the center of the show and rarely has a musical offered such an unsympathetic heroine. Effie is temperamental, paranoid, self-centered, and mean-spirited, but Raena White plays the character well and sings up a storm; her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” is a predictable showstopper at the end of the first act. That number made a star of Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 movie.
The other major musical character is James Thunder Early, who occupies too much of the second act with his woman problems and fears of a declining career. Still, Eric LaJuan Summers tears up the theater with his explosive R&B singing. Byron Glenn Willis is fine in the unflattering portrayal of Taylor, the Berry Gordy figure who doesn’t do as well as the real Berry Gordy—who is doing just fine in California. Britney Coleman plays Deena Jones, the Diana Ross figure, with an expressive voice and a strong physical resemblance to the original. Some of the most volcanic singing of the night comes from Rashida Scott, one of the Dreams, whose romantic entanglements with James Early are driving her to distraction. Darilyn Burtley satisfactorily completes the Dreams trio.
Along with Taylor and Early, the men in the lives of the Dreams are composer C. C. White (Travis Turner) and Early’s manager Marty (Trinity P. Murdock), a character who displays a rare bit of integrity and decency amidst all the wheeling and dealing and love affairs.
Dreamgirls is not an ideal fit for the Marriott in-the-round stage. The absence of sets robs the show of the aura of spectacle that enhances the Dreams story, though Nancy Missimi’s extravagant costume designs for the trio are certainly colorful enough. But set designer Thomas Ryan has to settle for a mostly open stage with props carried on and off during blackouts as needed. Jesse Klug’s lighting does inject some sizzle into the physical production but the musical works best in a proscenium stage environment.
Director-choreographer Marc Robin gets unlimited energy from his performers but his staging seems flat. Characters gather in static groups and spectators have to deal with the backs of the performers too often. I saw nothing but Effie’s back during her climactic number, missing all the facial expressions of her howl of agony and bitterness. After the number ends in a crescendo of emotion, Raena White is left to sneak off stage during the semi-blackout before the intermission, diluting the impact of the song. Note: Eleasha Gamble takes the role of Effie at Wednesday and Sunday matinees. Nobody could sing with all that intensity eight performances a week.
Robin’s choreography is limited to the stylistic movements associated with the Motown sound. Music director Doug Peck and conductor Patti Garwood deliver a solid R&B sound from the theater’s small but driving pit band. As a showcase for a stage full of talented African American singers, the Marriott Dreamgirls gets high marks. But there are problems built into the musical that the production simply has not overcome.
photos courtesy of Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre
Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call 847 634 0200 or visit http://www.MarriottTheater.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com