Mirroring the rise of the record label Motown Tom Eyen’s snappy script/swinging hits, and Henry Krieger’s bombastic music stays relevant due to its themes; Cultural appropriation of black talent, exploitation of women, the struggle for fame and a better life. Any of these ringing any bells?
We are thrown into the world of the Dreamettes (later Dreams); Outspoken Effie (Nicole Raquel Dennis), beautiful Deena (Natalie Kassanga), and comic relief Lorrell (Paige Peddie). Like the real-life Supremes, their discovery at a talent competition propels the three to stardom. Ambitious car salesmen turned manager Curtis (Dom Hartley-Harris) and subsequent tour as backup for star Jimmy Early (Brandon Lee Sears) shows that the journey is anything but smooth. Betrayal, infighting, and the price of fame are deepened by the searing atmosphere of the 1960s civil rights movement. The “crossing” over of black artists to the white pop charts and their struggle against the parasitic white music establishment and one another.
Eyen and Krieger’s partnerships won them 6 tony awards in 1982 and for good reason. The songs are both catchy and vocally demanding, hits in their own right. The accumulation of what can only be described as black excellence cast wise is, well, a dream. Raquel Dennis particularly as Effie is tasked with a massive range and needs real umph to knock down a brick wall. Thankfully she delivers. Lee Sears as the established star Jimmy Early channels all the wild vocal gymnastics of Little Richard and the sleaze of the music industry. Kassanga’s Deena follows in the footsteps of the film’s Beyonce confidently, and her change from shy backing singer to solo performer is a well-crafted arch. Another equally well-built bit of character architecture is Hartley-Harris as their manager, showing the temptations of gold and ambition. It helps that he has a smooth velvety voice and tight dance moves, the whole package indeed, making him a very stylish baddie.
Raquel Dennis’s celestial singing voice does make up for her, at times, faltering accent work. Shem Omari James as C.C the Dreams writer is not the strongest singer but embodies the character well. Apart from that the cast belts, and boldly bounces around the stage, never allowing us a second to catch our breath.
Tim Hatley understands the need for movement in the set and costumes. Towers of crates adorned with large glowing fresnel (lighting) glide too and frow, helpfully switching to show us onstage and backstage. Silvery curtains descend for quick scene changes, keeping everything fresh, whie lightning-fast costume changes capture the frantic pace of show-business. Everything is glitter, fringe and tassel, sharp suits, and the hugging feminity of the 60s and 70s. A slicker touring production would be hard to imagine.
Casey Nicholaw’s directing and choreography craft a distinct version of this classic musical, setting aside the Hollywood incarnation for a truly spectacular event. The focus more on Lorrell and Jimmy’s relationship provides more laughs, and the overall pace means the evening is over far faster than you would like.
Dreamgirls fictionizes the story of the rise of Motown and more specifically the brilliant women that crafted that movement. Think Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Mable John et al. Yet it also highlights the very human dream of making life better for oneself against all the odds. As this tour tornadoes around the country make every effort possible to catch them! After all, an evening of sequins, stupefying vocals, and civil rights? What more could anyone want? Follow that dream!
Written by: Tom Eyen, Henry Krieger
Directed by: Casey Nicholaw
Produced by: 1001 nights productions, Steven Rivellino, Griffin Dohr
Dreamgirls is touring nationally throughout 2022 and early 2023. Full tour dates can be found here.