Dreamgirls at the Apollo

dreamgirls-apolloOver 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 jim_miller.jpg

Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

If only I had written a successful chleuasmo . . .

Apparently my chleuasmo (a sarcastic reply that mocks an opponent, leaving him or her without an answer) has not worked since Mr. Thom is still spouting inanities. Let me then leave him with some advice once proffered by Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

Mr. Thom, I believe there are some lovely veins neck level.

My Dear Deflated Balloon...

Now you're beginning to bore me. "You are not only dull but the cause of dullness" (I'll bet you can't name the source of that quote... I'll even give you a hint, it's not Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith). Are you so dense that you haven't figured out that I didn't write the article that you needlessly defecated on? The writer you assaulted hasn't responded. Your inadvertent chleuasmo remains intact while your wits crumble about you.

If you had one ounce of confidence in your own writing abilities then you would have taken Dusty up on his kind offer to post a sample of your own work. Instead you continue to pollute this website with your stale breath and self-important words of little meaning. You poor, feeble-minded coward. You are truly under the frog's ass.

Let's See Those Newspaper Posts

I'm truly enjoying this sparring. Although I'd much rather see it spent on sharing smart culture with our readers.

Writing Guru, might you share some of your reviews with our readers? Perhaps post a few links on your next comment?

As far as Mr. Miller's use of the first person singular pronoun "I"...I really don't mind it. Nor does our managing editor Steve.

Strong, weaker, weakest

Who new DREAMGIRLS could spark such a heated debate?... Mr. Guru, you're statement of "I"s would not be considered irony but rather chleuasmos. The only thing ironic in your statement is that a douchebag such as yourself is trying to give limpid literary advice! (personally, I think you were once again caught with your pants down)... As for C.J. Thom;... one part jelly to two parts peanut butter should do the trick.

Trying to Cure C. J. Thom's I-mania

I can't say I'm surprised that the irony of the last paragraph went over your head . . . although I was truly hoping it hadn't. I don't like to think dense people are writing for CultureCatch.com.

As for my not being published, I have had 100s of articles published internationally. You're right about my novel, though; it's gathering dust.

But whether I'd been published or not is not the question. The question is whether my advice is constructive or not. I still think it is. And in fact after reading your response, I'm expanding my name to The Writing Guru to the Tenth Power.

Your Royal Gubu...

Writing between the tiles of bathroom stalls around the world doesn't count as international publication. Perhaps I would have picked up on your failed attempt at irony if it hadn't been drowned in your pathetic desire to feed your own bruised ego by needlessly criticizing another writer's work in a public forum. You want to give constructive criticism, try contacting someone privately... an e-mail might be nice. If you want to do something really constructive how about writing me a one page, descriptive essay on making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. I was never so hot at that back in elementary school but given that you're a Seventh Level Wookie of Words I'm sure you could give me a few pointers. I think you show some real promise as a writer & look forward to future contributions.

Writing a review

Please take all of your "I"s out. The reader knows these are your opinions. You are writing the review.

Weak: Over many years of theatergoing, I don’t know if any show has been as consistently exhilarating, thrilling, and powerful for me as Dreamgirls.

Stronger: Since its debut, no show has been as consistently exhilarating as Dreamgirls. (Aren't "exhilarating" and "thrilling" synonyms?)

Weak: 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.

Stronger: While the showy aspects of Longbottom’s staging are admirable, he must also assume some of the blame for the fact that this Dreamgirls doesn’t totally measure up dramatically.

Also, you go into how a certain scene replacement weakens the show. You don't explain why. For those unfamiliar with the show in a detailed manner, your criticism here falls a bit flat.

In the end, I feel, after having read hundreds of theater reviews over the decades that I deemed worthy in newspapers that I have bought to read when I was on the subway and when I was using other modes of transportation, that you have much potential as a critic. I wish you good luck from the bottom of my heart which I'm having examined by a doctor soon as part of my daily check up. Over many years of doctor check ups, I don't if any other type of doctor's visits have been as consistently exhilarating and thrilling and powerful for me. I'm so grateful to be able to open up to you, and I'd go on, but life calls.

The Writing Guru Speaks...

With a self-proclaimed title such as "The Writing Guru" I am assuming that you have never had anything published or produced in your life, aside from this gracious contribution. Having read your input I actually feel like a stronger writer. You are a regular Dalai Lama of the written word. Your words alone have inspired me to launch this response. Are you one of those obnoxious people who write disgruntled letters to The New York Times informing them of typos in their articles? I suggest getting back to that novel you've been suffering through since college but can't seem to finish... and go ahead and take your own advise once your get behind that dusty typewriter. Counting "I'm" & "I'd" there are ten "I"s in the last paragraph of your pompous opus. These are completely unnecessary for even the slowest of readers would clearly recognized the blessed touch of the all-knowing Writing Guru.

P.S. The groaning saga of your subway readings and doctor's visits is hardly compelling and could use a little tightening. Good luck with that.

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