Special to South Florida Times
In 1981, a little musical called Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway, to rave reviews, and garnered 13 Tony award nominations, winning six.
At the time, the show was a phenomenon, depicting the story of the rise of a 1960s female singing group and thepitfalls of fame. It starred Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones and Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson and introduced Jennifer Holiday to the theater scene as Effie White. The last time somebody attempted to give their own spin on this pop culture work, it was a little 2006 movie with the same name, which also became a pop culture phenomenon. The film was nominated for countless awards and won American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson an Oscar.
Fast forward four years. Robert Longbottom has revived the show as a musical that is faithful to the original work and cast another American Idol finalist, Syesha Mercado, a Floridian, in the lead role. This Dreamgirls incarnation was performed several times last week to packed audiences at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.
In Longbottom’s version that is faithful to the original, Deena, played by Mercado, is still the light voiced, innocent young girl pulled from her mother’s tight clutches to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Lorrell, played by Adrienne Warren, is still the youngest and most innocent of the group and Effie, played by Moya Angela, is still the strong-voiced, curvaceous singer who gets placed in the background for her looks.
Curtis Taylor Jr., as Chaz Lamar Shepherd, capitalizes on the unknown Dreamettes act to make them stars. He gets the trio a back-up singing gig for James “Thunder” Early, played by Chester Gregory, and their brother, C.C. White, played by Trevon Davis, as writer. When it appears that the ladies can do good all by themselves, Curtis makes the decision to change their image. He makes Effie, his girlfriend, stand as background to the beautiful Deena with the weak voice.
I loved the way Longbottom plays with the technological advances of today. Robin Wagner’s visual installation panels that stream video are pure genius and the perfect complement to the show.
Likewise, costume designer William Ivey Long had better be nominated for an award. Not only are the costumes pure visual candy but also the changing of costumes from second to second is almost unbelievable. I write “almost” because if I hadn’t seen the changes myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. The Dreamgirls appear to change into different outfits of varying styles and lengths as if by magic.
Despite this being Effie and Deena’s story, it’s a man that steals the show. Gregory’s James “Thunder” Early is supposed to be a spit fire. However, Gregory adds that extra something to Early that makes the audience laugh with pure joy and salivate for the punchline. His seamless performance is seductive, humorous and totally engaging. By the time the show reached the second act, in which James isn’t a prevalent part of the story, I longed for Gregory’s presence.
Speaking of the acts, I’m used to the second act of a show being more entertaining than the first. Imagine my surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed the first act better than the second. The first act is full of energy and the actors appear to be having the time of their lives — not to mention Effie’s searing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” acts as the climax for the audience. Everything after that is just loose ends being tied.
With Angela’s rendition of the famous song, I feel that I have been spoiled by Hudson’s version in the film. There is a reason why Hudson won that Oscar; her singing had a lot to do with it. Not to say that Angela does not give her all to that performance; it’s just that she doesn’t hit those upper level notes like Hudson does.
Seeing that the show is almost at its one-year mark, Mercado, Warren, Angela, Shepherd and Davis’ relaxation and expertise in their performances are to be expected. Their energy is also welcomed in the first act, which holds the better part of the musical. The second act seemed to have lost its edge.
Nevertheless, Longbottom has proven, once again, why Dreamgirls is such a stellar pop culture icon. It is a musical that taps into the richness of black History and the moments that shaped that history.
Kimberly Grant may be reached at KAliciaG@aol.com.
Dreamgirls the Broadway version will next be performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. You may log on to www.dreamgirlsonstage.com for more details.