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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!

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Paul W. Thompson Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as a performer, teacher and writer is centered at Paul W. Thompson Music, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, where he teaches the great songs of Broadway to the next generation of musical theater performers. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Paul was raised in a family of professional musicians and teachers, steeped in classical, gospel, country, pop, sacred and show music. Dubbed a “thin, winsome lad” at the age of 13 by a critic for the Nashville Banner, he earned two degrees in musical theater (a B.F.A. with Honors from Baylor University and an M.M. from the University of Miami, Florida), plus an M.B.A. with Distinction from DePaul University. Paul’s memberships include Actors’ Equity Association, the American Guild of Musical Artists, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (proud voter for the Grammy Awards!), the National Association of Teachers of Singing and New York’s Drama League.

Moving easily between the worlds of classical music, religious music, classic pop and musical theater, Paul has appeared onstage or in the orchestra pit in concerts, musicals, operettas and operas in 30 states and in Europe, in a career spanning more than 35 years. His Chicagoland stage credits include “Forever Plaid” at the Royal George Theater and twenty mainstage productions at Light Opera Works. Paul joined the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1995 (he was Tenor I Section Leader for four years and sings on two Grammy-winning recordings), and is one of Chicago’s foremost liturgical singers, marking 20 years as a member of the choir at St. James Cathedral (Episcopal) in 2011.He has composed and arranged a number of anthems, hymns and songs for worship and concert use, and collaborates on the creation of new works of musical theater. Paul can be found on Monday nights watching showtune videos at the world-famous Sidetrack nightclub, the inspiration for his weekly column, “The Showtune Mosh Pit.” His proudest achievement is that he has seen the original Broadway production of every Tony Award-winning Best Musical since “Cats.” No, really. Since “Cats!”

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