Chicago Theater Review: DREAMGIRLS (Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 16, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

AND I AM TELLING YOU — YOU ARE GOING

I never saw the two touring revivals of the Tony-honored Dreamgirls that played Chicago’s old Shubert Theatre. But, like Marriott Theatre’s riveting 2012 production, they couldn’t have supplied more soul-stirring passion than this homegrown revival by Porchlight Music Theatre. Even lacking the original pyrotechnics and Las Vegas brio in this smaller Thrust Theatre of Stage 773, Brenda Didier’s power-packed, three-quarter thrust staging never lets up. How could it with Tom Eyen’s pile-driving book (hardly a dull spot in 20 scenes) or Henry Krieger’s sizzling score (not a dull note in 30 songs and soul recitatives)?

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Dreamgirls, the late Michael Bennett’s 1981 “other” musical, is of course a thinly-veiled chronicle of the rise and demise of the Supremes (and the price each paid in dreams deferred or abandoned). But, while Dreamgirls summons up nostalgia for the 60s and 70s, Krieger’s Grammy-winning “throughsung” score is universally anchored in the bedrock ambitions and frustrations of three very real “Dreamettes” and the “fake it till you make it” men who batten off their talent. Their checkered course to the top mirrors all the compromises and contradictions of trying to make it big with a style and sound of your own.

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Fresh from Chicago in the early 60s and eager to be discovered at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, these driven dames are gorgeous Deena Jones (Candace C. Edwards), innocent Lorrell Robinson (Katherine Thomas), and independent Effie Melody White (Donica Lynn), the strongest singer. Joined by her songwriting brother C.C. (Gilbert Domally), Effie has no wish to play back-up to anyone (“I’m not singing behind anybody“). But Effie falls for a smooth-talking, self-appointed manager named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Evan Tyrone Martin); for $400 a week the Dreamettes end up accompanying James “Thunder” Early (Eric Lewis), a selfish, womanizing blues singer who’s channeling James Brown. (Don’t you dare tell him “You can’t have it all!,” beginning with a “Cadillac Car.”) Early eventually takes a shine to Lorrell, despite being burdened with a wife.

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Convinced that big is best, Curtis takes over the trio, breaks a few color barriers, edges out Early’s even-tempered manager Marty (J. Michael Jones), renames them the “Dreams,” and discards rhythm and blues (to him “rough and black” or “right in the background”) for a smoother sound and glitzier costumes–all trotted out in the symbolic “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” This new glamour package means rotund, maternal Effie must step aside so statuesque Deena can become lead singer. Overconfident and toxically ambitious, Curtis makes his moves on Deena: Effie plays her jealousy so publicly Curtis gets the excuse he needs to dump her from his life and the act.

Porchlight_Dreamgirls4Which leads to the terrific first act finale, where Lynn wails out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” as every note tears out her soul and scorches the stage. For this heartbreaker alone Dreamgirls is worth whatever the market can bear.

The more cliche-ridden second act, set in the early 70s, reverses the tide with soap-operatic complications. By now Curtis’s ambitions have taken too great a toll from the others’ dreams, even the new girl Michelle Morris (Kyrie Courter), who can hardly replace Effie. Ironically, without Effie, Curtis needs a gimmick: Soul is not enough, neither is singing, which only proves how far he’s undercut his inspiration. (Stop him before he invents disco!) It’s a look rather than a sound he’s selling—and they all suffer.

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Meanwhile Effie didn’t just roll over and die. Likewise her brother C.C., who, disgusted at Curtis’s indifference to the mood of his notes, takes his material back to his sister. In retaliation Curtis sets off an all-out chart war with Effie, a dirty competition that brings him down through his own “playola”–paying bad habits. (He also loses Deena as she goes on to star in the awful film Lady Sings the Blues—oops, that was Diana. Never mind.) Effie, who never lost faith, makes it good as well as big–but the Dreams dissolve in “Hard to Say Goodbye.”

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Like the Supremes themselves, Dreamgirls is a great ride while it lasts (150 minutes). There’s a ton of truth inside Bennett’s packaging. Even if you never heard of Motown, The Shirelles, Jackie Wilson or even the Supremes, the show can stand on its own. Plus it’s fascinating how the songs that The Dreams sing begging for a guy’s favor contrast with the “story” songs that detail the ladies’ struggle to understand the louses they love. They’re accidentally inventing feminism along with glitter camp.

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Kudos to this Porchlight renewal, a hotbed of well-showcased talent–from Didier’s kickass choreography to Donald Peck’s impressive orchestrations and musical direction to Denise Karczewski’s less-is-more set and lighting to Bill Morey’s bling-busy, eye-popping costumes (Sequin City!). Best of show are the kinetic song stylings of Lynn’s electric Effie (“I Am Changing” is out of this universe and “Faith in Myself” a reason for worship), the warmth of Thomas’s Lorrell, and the elegance of Edwards’ Deena. Gifted with voices to excuse their roles, the men too hold their own, no small feat against such fine female forces. But the “dreamboys” of Dreamgirls are mainly the stuff of nightmares, strictly “One Night Only.” Leave it to the ladies!

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Porchlight_Dreamgirls10photos by Kelsey Jorissen

Dreamgirls
Porchlight Music Theatre
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
ends on May 15, 2016
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Porchlight

for more show info, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith April 16, 2016 at 6:30 pm

Great review.

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