Review: “Dreamgirls”

“Dreamgirls” is a Tony-winning musical about the show business aspirations and successes of R&B acts like The Supremes, The Shirelles, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and many more. This show, much like those legendary acts, mostly shines but does have some bumps along its road to eventual success.

Beginning in 1962, the story focuses on an all-girl group called The Dreamettes and their road to super stardom. The three ladies are Lorrell Robinson (Ta’Nika Gibson – a veteran of “The Wiz” and “Mamma Mia!” among others), Deena Jones (Phoenix Best from the recent “The Color Purple” revival on Broadway), and Effie White (Zonya Love from TV’s “Blue Bloods” and Broadway’s “The Color Purple). Effie’s brother CC white (Wonza Johnson) is an aspiring songwriter, but his material is constantly being changed by manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Thomas Hobson) or given to Taylor’s “star” artist Jimmy Early (E. Clayton Cornelious – also from the “Sister Act” and “Kinky Boots” national tours and Broadway’s “Wonderland). Each of these people is searching for their dream and while they have common goals and similar paths, they often have different visions of how to achieve success. Add in some romantic entanglements and you’ve got plenty of conflict and drama. When Effie is replaced by Michelle Morris (Kerissa Arrington – last seen here in TUTS’ “Sweet Potato Queens” and a veteran of the “Sister Act” national tour) she sets out to best her former bandmates and become an even bigger star.

“Dreamgirls” has a fantastic, memorable score and is mostly sung-through. The cast, from top to bottom, is impressive with their singing being a standout, especially on the touching “Family” and “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” Effie’s numbers are the most well-known from the show, and while Love does fine on the showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the end of Act One, she scores even higher marks on Effie’s other solos “One Night Only” and especially “I Am Changing.” The biggest standout in the cast is Coornelious, bringing both humor and pathos to Jimmy. He is any number of music stars trying to stay young and not let the next generation of singers pass him by.

The scenic design is simple but effective, with a revolving stage moving a set of three staircases attached to a second-floor walkway. The area between these staircases becomes dressing rooms and other locales throughout the show, with the majority of the time spent “on stage” during a concert. When using a single set for the entire show, a director runs the risk of boring the audience visually. But much like the sparse revival of “Chicago” this show succeeds on its material and doesn’t need more than some basic visual reinforcement. The costumes are lavish when needed and period-specific gaudy (think shiny suits, bell bottoms, etc.) when needed. There are a couple of clever quick changes for the girls that stun you if you’re not playing close attention. One with Effie at the beginning of Act Two is especially impressive.

The biggest problem with this show is one that has plagued TUTS productions for some time – the sound. At Thursday’s press night performance, there were many missed sound cues and at one point, a pre-recorded voiceover played in the middle of a book scene. While this is live theatre and mistakes can happen over an 8-show week, this has been a pattern for TUTS’ local productions for several years now. It is unclear if this was a problem with the tech running the sound board, the mics themselves, interference with the radio transmitters or some combination of all of these, but it is becoming the rule not the exception at TUTS shows and must be addressed. There were no problems at their last presentation “An American in Paris” but that was a national tour and there are never this many issues at Broadway Across America shows. One can only conclude that this is a TUTS specific issue.

Sound issues aside, “Dreamgirls” is impressive and a memorable night at the theatre. You’ll leave the Hobby Center humming along with the great songs…or at least the parts of them you could hear.

***1/2 out of *****
“Dreamgirls”
Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Sheldon Epps
Presented by Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through April 16th
Tickets: www.tuts.com
Photo: Kerissa Arrington as Michelle Morris, Phoenix Best as Deena Jones and Ta’nika Gibson as Lorrell Robinson in the Theatre Under the Stars production of “Dreamgirls” at The Hobby Center

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