It's not surprising that dreamgirls celebrates its 35th year on Broadway. With high-energy performances and Motown-inspired numbers, Tom Eyen's 1981 musical, which garnered six Tony awards, continues to shine on stage.
Dreamgirls opens at New York City's iconic Apollo Theater where aspiring singers—loosely based on Diana Ross and The Supremes—are performing. With a glowing neon APOLLO sign and a revolving staircases, the set moves along with the action of the story—and it never lags. Audiences feel nostalgia thanks to period costumes, like the pink matching outfits of '60s girl groups to the glamorous style, made famous by Ross, in the '70s.
What do The Dreamettes face on their journey to musical fame? Back-up singer blues, demanding agents and songwriters, romance and, of course, heartbreak. The opening song, “I’m Looking for Something” sets the thematic trajectory of their desire for fame, and they achieve it, ultimately becoming “Deena Jones and the Dreams” just like Diana Ross and The Supremes, with Deena stealing the spotlight and inspiring resentment from the other singers. Deena (Phoenix Best) is a sympathetic figure who is originally forced into being the lead singer, displacing the more talented but ostensibly less beautiful and glamorous lead singer Effie White (Zonya Love), who ultimately leaves the group altogether when she cannot recover from her demotion as lead singer.
Conveniently, the storyline follows the reality of this production. Love’s performance as Effie is the highlight of Dreamgirls. Her voice is so superlative that it dominates the entire production. Not to say that this is not a strong ensemble cast (it is) but her performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” gave me chills. Love is simply a star. Her dramatic expulsion from the musical group is even more poignant with the audience being fully aware that she really is the best performer on that stage. Her vocals, especially in “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only,” are must-see moments that are worth the price of the ticket.
Also notable is the energetic performance of E. Clayton Cornelious as Jimmy “Thunder” Early, an equally ambitious performer who channels James Brown, Prince and Tom Jones with comedic flair and excellent vocals. He's a master of physical comedy and takes risks that pay off big when he is front and center in many of the numbers. While he has a long-term failed relationship with one of the Dreamgirls, his frustrations as a performer, particularly with changing musical tastes and unreliable managers, takes on a life of its own. He is a mesmerizing and surprising performer who deserves a lot of credit for bringing this production alive.
One of the problems with Dreamgirls is that the songs not performed by Effie are never as good as most of the Motown and pop songs of that era. No fault to the performers, but it is a long musical, and sometime less packs a more powerful punch. In addition, there is some unusual direction, with anonymous characters crossing the stage at times for no apparent reason. There is a lot of unmotivated movement on the stage, and it's distracting. Jeffrey Polk’s choreography often tends to work against itself, with the male dancers performing routines that seem excessive for the moment, and even upstaging the Dreamgirls as they become more sophisticated in their musical routines as fame intensifies for them.
At one point, male dancers were leaping in front of the singers blocking them so much I wondered why they were placed in the forefront when the Dreams should have been center stage, and the music, rather than the dancing, given more emphasis. Some of the dancing was awkward and out of sync, creating a jarring effect. One reason we still love this era's musical groups was the smoothness and synchronicity of their performances, and this works against the collective cultural memories of these important and memorable musical acts.
Overall, Dreamgirls is an entertaining journey down memory lane, and the infighting between the artists and the personal frustrations of competing in the harsh world of showbiz come alive for the audience. There are a lot of plates spinning, so if you like action, then this show is for you. But it should be all about the music, and when it is, it is sublime. In any case, seeing the Dreamettes transform to Deena Jones and the Dreams is a memorable journey, reminding the audience that no matter how many sequins and feathers are on the stage, “this business is work.” Dreamgirls is both funny and sad, but you won’t forget hearing Love play Effie White—that's what real stardom really looks like.
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