Over many years of theatergoing, I don't know if any show has been as consistently exhilarating, thrilling, and powerful for me as Dreamgirls. I have seen five different productions, starting with the original Broadway production, and was excited about the prospect of seeing my sixth, especially given that it was a new production at an historic venue, Harlem's Apollo Theater. After all, Dreamgirls is a musical that had never let me down. I can't say that this production, which runs until December 12 at the Apollo, then heads out for a national tour, is a major letdown. If I had never seen Dreamgirls before, I am sure I would have been thrilled by the many sizzling moments.
But it was the first time that the raw emotional power I have always felt from the piece did not quite come through. For several reasons that I will get into, this production was not as heartbreaking or dramatically thrilling as past productions. I'm not just comparing this to the original -- I have seen Dreamgirls at a regional theater in New Jersey, at a one-night Actors Fund benefit, and in a smaller Philadelphia production almost four years ago. All of them were more successful in, pardon the expression, blowing me away and in their devastating emotional wallop.
That said, I definitely do not regret seeing this new production. It is still Dreamgirls, which I do think is a great show, and there is much that is dazzling and wonderful. Dreamgirls, of course, is the story of the rise to success and fame of a black singing group, somewhat modeled after Diana Ross and the Supremes. It takes place between 1962 and 1975, depicting the growing popularity of the Motown sound and its evolution and acceptance in American culture. It has a terrific and tuneful Henry Krieger score with the Motown sound, including lots of soul, rhythm and blues, and even some rap. The original was directed by the great Michael Bennett and ran for over four years, and a successful movie came out three years ago.
Director/co-choreographer Robert Longbottom has come back from his problematic Bye Bye Birdie work to provide some fluid, cinematic, and impressive staging. I loved scenic designer Robin Wagner's work, highlighted by the use of five constantly moving panels with LEDs, which provide the show with color and location scenery, along with a continuous sense of choreographed movement that is almost a show it itself. Ken Billington's lighting is superb, and William Ivey Long has created some stunning costumes, which also provide a fashion show on its own.
The song "Listen," which was written for the movie but was not in previous stage productions, has been added, and I felt its inclusion made for a powerful scene and a great duet featuring the two lead female characters, Effie and Deena. But "Listen" is a bit different from the scene it replaces, and it somewhat undercuts some of the emotion from that original scene. And the scene that follows "Listen," involving Deena and her husband Curtis, has been re-written and is now much weaker, and they have cut Curtis's final monologue, which is a major loss. All those things contributed to an ending that, while still powerful and moving, was not quite as overpowering as it has been before.
The cast is uneven. Best among them are Moya Angela's Effie (above, left) and Chester Gregory's Jimmy Early, the James Brown-type character. Angela does not disappoint with the show's most famous number, delivering a terrific "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," and she also does a knockout "I Am Changing," which provides the spark that was ever so slightly missing earlier in the show and helps propel a second act that is definitely closer to what I expect from Dreamgirls compared to a slightly less impressive Act One.
I always love "One Night Only," and Angela delivers on that one, helped by some thrilling staging of the entire scene. Gregory is a nimble, funny, and exciting Early and the other star of the evening. The rest of the performers are generally adequate or better, and many have their big moments, though I've seen better. Dreamgirls always has displays of big vocal belting, and the singing in this production is first rate, but the acting often could be much stronger. American Idol seventh season second runner-up Syesha Mercado's Deena is bland in spots; she does have a strong voice, and her best moment is the "Listen" duet with Angela. Adrienne Warren's Lorrell starts a bit slowly but comes into her own in her Act Two scenes. However, I have seen funnier and more distinctive Lorrells in previous productions.
Most problematic was Chaz Lamar Shepherd's Curtis. Early in the show, he seemed to always be either smiling or scowling, and he never found the right tone for the manipulative and ambitious Curtis. While I admired the showy aspects of Longbottom's staging, he must also assume some of the blame for the fact that this Dreamgirls doesn't totally measure up dramatically. When multiple performances are only adequate, you have to look at the director. When a show that has always been overpowering comes up a little short on that front, again, you have to point to the director.
There also is an ever-so-subtle shift in emphasis in this production. Female empowerment is a more prominent theme. A recurring motif of "showbiz, it's just showbiz" has been eliminated, and the heartbreaking ramifications coming from the achievement of and subsequent destruction of dreams does not register as strongly as it should. In the end, the combination of uneven performances and direction, and the changes made in the show, resulted in a less powerful show emotionally, as well as a less dramatic one, and I missed that. But there is much that is dazzling thrilling, and stunning onstage at the Apollo. There are still some individual moments that are wonderful and totally fulfilling.
Perhaps with more performances (this production has had a very limited preview period), they will fine-tune things and elevate the show another notch. Seeing this show at the Apollo, a theater that plays an important role in the musical's plot and has such history associated with it, was exciting, and I found the theater more intimate than I had expected. But I have come to expect to be blown away by Dreamgirls, especially from such a highly and long-anticipated revival, and this production did not do that for me. It will still please many people, but some fans may feel a bit let down by this Dreamgirls. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.