Big voice, big heart
A showstopping singer gives new ‘Dreamgirls’ plenty of soul
Nearly 30 years after the Broadway original and four years after Bill Condon’s movie version, a revamped “Dreamgirls’’ is back onstage where it belongs. The tour, which opened at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in November, plays the Colonial Theatre through Feb. 14 - and I am telling you, you’re going.
At least, you’re going if you want to hear the latest powerful rendition of the song that made Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson famous, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.’’ Moya Angela follows in their footsteps as Effie, the singer with the big figure and even bigger voice who’s displaced by the more telegenic Deena as the show’s more-or-less-fictional ’60s girl group climbs the charts.
Angela, like the Jennifers before her, absolutely nails this number. It’s Effie’s response to the decision to push her into the background - a decision made, not coincidentally, by the man she loves, who’s also the group’s ambitious manager - and it’s truly a showstopper. Coming as it does at the end of the first act, it’s got plenty of emotional momentum behind it, but it also requires a powerful singer to put it over. And that Angela is, both vocally and emotionally. Her Effie demands our love, and she gets it.
Big Moments aside, “Dreamgirls’’ is a neatly crafted and generally satisfying musical; Tom Eyen’s book never surprises but never drags, and its score, with lyrics by Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, successfully evokes the pop and soul of the ’60s without ever quite breaking through to become unforgettable. But the themes of ambition and love are timeless, and it’s a true pleasure (though it should by now be a more commonplace one) to see an all-black cast given a real story to enact on a musical stage.
For this iteration, the score has been slightly reworked to include one song from the movie version, “Listen,’’ here presented as a reasonably effective second-act duet between Effie and Deena. In addition, director Robert Longbottom has enlisted TV choreographer Shane Sparks to assist him in updating Michael Bennett’s original staging - something that I’d have thought didn’t need the help.
Perhaps their collaboration explains the tendency here for classic girl-group moves - the synchronized stop-sign hands, the upraised arms and profiles - to go a little loose and flashy, suddenly seeming more like ’80s cheese than ’60s bubblegum. Mostly, though, they leave well enough alone, and the dancers have fun with the stylized moves.
Even more fun are William Ivey Long’s costumes, which feature a dazzling number of quick changes and a genuinely stupefying array of sequins, glitter, and other little sparkly things. From the homemade-looking peplums the Dreamettes wear for their first gig at the Apollo, through the sleek sheaths of their heyday as the more sophisticated Dreams, to the wretched late-career excess of a hilariously ill-advised disco number, the ladies’ gowns ring the changes on pop glamour with elegance and wit - with Paul Huntley’s increasingly rococo wigs providing the icing on the cheesecake.
Original set designer Robin Wagner has updated his minimalist columns with the help of media designer Howard Werner, whose LED and other images on giant panels create a variety of precise but unobtrusive backgrounds, from recording studios to a Cadillac showroom to the twinkling lights of Paris. High-tech scenery should always mesh so well with live performance.
As for the performances, they’re uniformly strong. Syesha Mercado has an appropriately light but pleasing voice as Deena, and she develops real grit as the character grows; Chaz Lamar Shepherd makes Curtis, the manipulative manager, into a believable, if deeply flawed, man. Chester Gregory is never less than entertaining as James “Thunder’’ Early, the soul singer who provides a big early break and even bigger heartbreak for the Dreams. And Trevon Davis brings a particularly winning sweetness to the role of C.C. White, Effie’s brother and the group’s lead songwriter.
But it’s Effie’s show, and Angela makes a memorable Effie. Even in the background, she’s a star.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.