Story: An aspiring trio of singers from Chicago travels to the renowned Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1962 to audition their “girl group” at the venue’s famous “Amateur Night” competition. They don’t win, thanks in part to an enterprising car salesman back stage named Curtis Taylor Jr., who instantly observes their talent and convinces them to let him be their manager.
Curtis finagles a 10-week tour for “The Dreamettes” as backup singers to an established black performer named James “Thunder” Early. Two of the girls, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, are excited about the opportunity, but lead singer Effie White objects to the second-class status of their act. She’s finally convinced by Curtis of what the gig can mean, and The Dreamettes are on their way, as well as Effie’s songwriting brother, C.C.
Friction continues on and off between Curtis and Effie even as they start a relationship. Effie is angry when Curtis decides to put Deena in the lead of the renamed “Dreams” because of her “pop style” voice, as he works to cross over from a rhythm and blues sound to the pop charts dominated by white performers. Eventually, Curtis drops Effie from the group altogether, replacing her with Michelle Morris. As The Dreams’ popularity continues its ascent, Effie belatedly receives another opportunity at stardom through the guidance of Jimmy’s former manager, Marty, even as Deena determines to leave the group for an acting career.
Highlights: Despite the public denials by Broadway director Michael Bennett, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist/author Tom Eyen, Dreamgirls looks and sounds every bit like a thinly veiled biography of legendary Motown recording group The Supremes. That trio, comprised of Mary Wells, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard until Ballard was replaced in the mid-‘60s by Cindy Birdsong, had a string of hits that resulted from its smooth and easy-on-the-ears style. And Curtis Taylor Jr.’s drive and ambition sure are reminiscent of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Regardless, Dreamgirls took Broadway by storm in 1982 and amassed a whopping 13 Tony Award nominations, winning six, including one for Best Actress for Jennifer Holliday in the role of Effie. Now, three decades later, thanks to the efforts of new Muny executive director Mike Isaacson and others, the groundbreaking musical makes its Muny debut in spectacular fashion, led by Holliday reprising her original role.
Other Info: Isaacson is batting 1.000 thus far this season with four well-received presentations of shows not previously produced by The Muny. This latest effort is particularly impressive, if not always engaging, because it’s the type of blockbuster show that The Muny does so well.
Dreamgirls’ size, both in scope and ambition, is a good fit for the massive Muny stage. Holliday’s booming voice soared out across the crowded amphitheater on opening night as she stirred the audience with the musical’s signature tune, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, Effie’s last hurrah in Act One when she finds out she’s been dumped from the act.
Holliday surely isn’t 19 years old anymore, but her voice sounded powerful and passionate as she shaped the role she’s made famous for a new audience. She has the longest tune of the production, in fact, as most of the songs are more snippets than full-blown numbers or at least don’t measure up to her strong solo turn.
Dreamgirls is a precursor of later works such as Jersey Boys and Memphis! as it presents a fictional description of the music business back in rock ‘n’ roll’s infancy and adolescence. The beauty in Eyen’s script is vibrantly showing the rise of African-American talent behind the musical form that was inspired by black artists whose work was repackaged by white performers, including Elvis, Pat Boone and others.
Under the smooth and seamless direction of Robert Clater, The Muny’s production is very long but not because of sluggish pace or performances. Rather, Krieger’s music continually supports Eyen’s story, moving directly from one series of tunes to another sequence with nary a pause.
The cast is uniformly splendid. In addition to Holliday, Christopher Jackson is a compelling Curtis, a man whose many faults are somewhat offset by his clear thinking and single-focused ambition to shape America’s musical taste. Ken Page is solid as Jimmy’s long-time manager Marty, who is left in the dust of Curtis’ forward-moving train and then attempts a comeback as Effie’s agent, while Tommar Wilson is strong as the well-intentioned C.C.
Milton Craig Nealy is a crowd-pleaser as the rowdy, independent and reckless Jimmy, looking and sounding a lot like James Brown. Jenelle Lynn Randall is consistent as Lorrell, the amiable ‘glue’ of The Dreams and the star-crossed lover of the married Jimmy, and Karla Mosley does well as Effie’s replacement Michelle. Demetria McKinney has the slinky good looks and smooth voice for Deena as well as a suitable acting style.
Michael Anania’s set design emulates the look of original designer Robin Wagner’s four metal light towers, which anchor the proceedings in various locales such as Cleveland, Miami, Las Vegas and Harlem. They’re handsomely complemented by The Muny’s LED screen, which accentuates specific locales to great effect. Costume technician John Furrow provides an array of gowns for The Dreams, Seth Jackson adds lighting, Jason Krueger offers sound design and Darren Ledbetter provides strong musical direction for the orchestra. Lesia Kaye’s choreography dresses up the on-stage moves for The Dreams.
While the performance of Dreamgirls was engaging and exhilarating for much of the opening night audience, for me it’s the background story of its inspiring real-life people that is most interesting.
Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: July 18, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: From free to $70; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry/The Muny