BWW Reviews: Marc RobinÂ's DREAMGIRLS Keeps It Moving at the Marriott
The 1981 musical "Dreamgirls" comes with a unique set of pre-conditions, if you will. It always has the presence of Jennifer Holliday, a Tony and Grammy Award winner for her galvanic performance of the role of Effie White and her emotionally searing, soul gospel cry of pain, "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going." (Holliday performed the role earlier this summer at The Muny in St. Louis, you remember.) It has the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes hanging over it like a weird spectre (is it about them, or not about them?). Further, the character of James "Thunder" Early is like JAmes Brown…except when he's like Little Richard.
The original production won six Tony Awards, but not Best Musical or Best Score, putting observers into "Nine" or "Dreamgirls" camps, and horror if you liked both! Then there's the 2006 film adaptation, starring mega-watt performers Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Chicago native Jennifer Hudson. And don't forget the show's resonance with many gay men of a certain age, whose friends fought and died through the worst years of the AIDS crisis while clutching onto the glamor and drag-queen fun of the Grammy winning original cast album, and for whom the song "Family" holds incredible poignancy.
And then there's the legacy of Michael Bennett, the show's original director and (with Michael Peters) choreographer. As his last complete work for the stage, it's an extremely important musical. And yet, it's an odd one, in that there are no "dance roles" or even "dance sequences." Why? The whole show dances, start to finish! Tom Eyen's cinematic book has countless short scenes, and keeping the cast (and the lights) moving is the only way to stage it. Half of the songs are sung "in performance," so of course the characters are dancing while they sing. But this show for and about singers simply has to be staged by a choregrapher.
And so it is at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, where a dizzying new production has opened (running through November 4, 2012), directed and choreographed by the whoppingly creative mind and feet of 16-time Jeff Award-winning Marc Robin. The fascinating thing is, there's almost no scenery (Thomas M. Ryan is the set designer). Not that the production needs any! It has Jesse Klug's impossibly hard-working lighting design (there must be hundreds and hundreds of lighting instruments and light cues) and Nancy Missimi's workaday-to-glamorous costumes (and wigs, one assumes). And so, the cast spends two and half hours running on and off the Marriott's square-shaped stage, changing costumes, singing at least two dozen songs and creating the places they're in by sheer force of will, prompting the audience's imagination. And did I mention that the music hardly ever stops? Henry Krieger's R&B, gospel, pop, funk, soul and more rolls out of the orchestra loft like a Motown-based dusties station on steroids (Patti Garwood conducts the eight players), and the cast of twenty sings, and sings, and sings (musical direction by the five-time Jeff Award-winning Doug Peck).
And it's an impressive cast, to be sure. The actors cast as ensemble members or understudies are among the very best young African-American performers in Chicago right now, including talents like James Earl Jones II ("Ragtime" at the Drury Lane Theatre), Evan Tyrone Martin ("Some Enchanted Evening" at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre), Brian-Alwyn Newland ("Big River" at Bohemian Theatre Ensemble), Alexis J. Rogers ("Porgy and Bess" at Court Theatre) and Kelvin Roston, Jr. ("The Jackie Wilson Story" at Black Ensemble Theater). That's some bench!