Dreamgirls is lively Motown song-&-dance
Sung-dialogue in quasi-lite-opera-mode was popularized in the 70’s by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar; Cats; Evita; Phantom of the Opera etc.). The genre’s most notorious variant was a 1-year Stephen Bochko t.v. show in 1990 called Cop Rock where guys and gals in blue broke out into song at homicide scenes. (I'm not kidding, lol.)
ACT’s final mount of the season, Dreamgirls, is where Superstar meets Cop Rock in a Motown music review / revue. And the Stanley Theatre show is equal to the challenge : a glitzaria of song, choreography, set, lighting, costumes and orchestra that will gladden the hearts and ears and eyes of audiences from six to 96.
Written originally in 1981 by Tom Eyen with music by Henry Krieger, it achieved mega-hit status with the 2006 movie version featuring American Idol winner Jennifer Hudson as Effie Melody White, for which she won best supporting actress awards from both the Golden Globes and Oscar. That fact is relevant to this stage re-mount because the movie extended the appeal of the show. Indeed, the opening night crowd on Granville Street had a substantial number of young people hooting and cheering along with their Boomer parents.
Backdrop : The late 50’s and early 60’s found North American popular music awash in various influences, from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Mathis to Andy Williams to Elvis to the Kingston Trio to the Everlys and The Beach Boys. We also suffered through Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon.
What mainstream North Americans generally did not hear was the rhythm and blues of such originals as Big Momma Thornton and Little Willie John. Along come three young women promoted by Motown genius Berry Gordy and The Supremes burst onto the stage with a whole new schtick based on glamour, glitz, and slick bodies in sequins. It’s the rise-&-fall of The Supremes and Motown that is the basis for Dreamgirls. N.B. The music is all original. No Supremes covers at all.
But the play does a good job as well of highlighting the tension between “pure” rhythm-&-blues music that sprang from fevered gospel roots and was being performed at iconic rooms like the Apollo Theatre in Harlem -vs- the Las Vegas showgirl stuff that Berry Gordy was pushing. “Making music” in any kind of pure creative sense was less important to him than securing pop-chart placements. If it took payola to promote his stuff or stuff the competition, those practices were rampant in the radio rock’n’roll industry.
Plot : A New York trio, the Dreamettes, are fronted by Effie Melody White (Aurianna Angelique) and backed by Deena Jones (Karen Holness) and Lorell Robinson (Starr Domingue). They are given a break to back-up Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Hector Johnson) when Cadillac car salesman and hustler Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Daren Herbert) greases the skids. Taylor outmuscles the Dreamettes’ current manager Marty (Alvin Sanders) to become the group’s impressario, but keeps peace by bringing White’s brother C.C. (Ian Yuri Gardner) along as songwriter and mediator among these febrile personalities.
Robinson falls in heat with “Thunder”, who’s married. For her part Effie swoons over Taylor, who beds her early on but shortly turns his affections to Deena, whom he ultimately marries. The show on this level is pure soap opera, toggling between upstage song-&-dance numbers and backstage melodrama mapping the personal politics between the performers as people and as professional players. These flips from on-stage to back-stage worked crisply at the Stanley thanks to the set and choreography.
Ejected from the group toward the end of Act 1 as overweight and too “Apollo” -- not enough “Top 10” for Taylor -- Eppie is punted for another slim performer Michelle Morris (Crystal Balint) as back-up to Deena -- in case you'd not guessed, Deena's the “cross-over” voice and sexy showgirl who is the Diana Ross clone. She has nowhere near Eppie's singing depth or power, but is competent and breathy -- values Taylor applauds more than raw singing talent. Act 2 reveals Eppie’s resurrection from rejection, her rise to personal stardom herself with a rich R&B number as "soul" starts to poll, and ultimately the reconciliation of all of these fallen-out parties to cough up a happy ending. The irony is this happens even as the reconstituted group The Dreams breaks up so all these characters can pursue their own dreams instead of a made-up one as a group.
Cast credits : Between acts on opening night I wrote : “This is a show to go to to recall the glitz and brilliant ‘showiness’ of Motown music in its heyday.” The plot and character development are incidental to the rock-and-roll, the dance, the “show”. Viewers will not come away with an emotional investment in any of the characters, probably, though Johnson as the James Brown knock-off “Thunder” and Domingue as his love interest Lorrell almost make us believe they’re people and not just performers. And to this viewer it is those two actors who deserve highest marks – along with Angelique as Effie – for their emotional investment on stage.
Capable and journeyman performances by the balance of the cast and ensemble, certainly, with one curious caveat : the Curtis Taylor, Jr. character depicted by Daren Herbert. Taylor is the mover-&-shaker of these singers -- a hustler, a promoter, a bit of a racketeer with his payola shenanigans. On stage a more wooden, stiff, unblocked, unchoreographed and nearly immobile characterization so unlikely for a persona such as Taylor I could not imagine. But oh what a voice – rich, resonant, impassioned when wooing or swooning -- then unremarkable and flat when sing-talking, as if to match his stickperson immobility on stage. A real stand-out puzzler this one.
As the twice-rejected Effie – rejected both as lover and as performer – Aurianna Angelique gives power and richness bar-for-bar in all her songs, dialogue and arias, reminiscent of the gospel origins of much R&B with depth and trills and chills up the spine. Her “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is breathtaking in its pain and defiance at being dumped, the number one crowd-pleaser, surpassing even her excellent “One Night A Week” poignant showstopper in Act 2. Oh oh oh.
Production values : ACT's version of Dreamgirls would be worth a 2nd or 3rd look for the production qualities alone. This is a “wowser”, not a “thinkster”. This is a go-see, go-hear, go-feel bonanza where Director Bill Millerd wrung absolutely every ounce and nuance of talent he could from Ted Roberts’ extraordinary set of swiveling vertical 20-foot rectangles that variously feature klieg light bars, concert posters, and spangled show backdrops. Marsha Sibthorpe’s lighting blasted against this clever set created catchy dizzle-dazzle effects of alternating reds and blues and greens. Sheila White’s costumes were thread-perfect. Favourite montage was the opening scene of Act 2 where the slinky dresses of The Dreams and the white tux slacks of the four men beneath their lime, yellow, teal and purple satin blouses were ace. Sound designer Andrew Tugwell’s mic-ing of the cast was flawless – every lyric caught without straining. Valerie Easton’s choreography was perhaps even more creative in this than it was in last season’s High Society that I adored. Brava indeed! particularly in the noted favourite montage kicking off Act 2. And last but not least, Ken Cormier’s musical direction. Tight. As noted with Easton and her gifts to last season’s High Society, Cormier’s ensemble jelled-&-excelled once again. Percussionist Graham Boyle’s performance particularly struck my ear impressively – not one single stroke sounding like a hatchet whacking up kindling that many drummers fall prey to. Terrific chops by all in the pit.
Summary : This is go-see stuff. A bit hokey & histrionic & sketchy in character, sure, but forget the storyline. These are see-hear-smell Motown moments that appeal to the viscera, not the cranium. Go just for the impact on your senses to take you out of your head for a couple of hours.