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!
It's hard to separate lead roles from supporting in this script, but in my mind the show is about seven characters. They are the three girls who rise to stardom as the original "Dreams" (Effie, the original lead singer, Deena, the smoother, replacement lead, and Lorrell, spunky in her own right), and the four men with whom their professional and personal lives intertwine (C.C., Effie's brother who becomes a composer, James "Thunder" Early, a star with whom the girls tour, Curtis, a manager and ultimately crooked record promoter, and Marty, Early's original manager who ultimately manages Effie).
As Effie, the beautiful Raena Scott looks like a perfect blend of the two Jennifers in this iconic role, and if she doesn't bring quite the vocal heft (or the physical size) of those two stars, she uses some lighter, higher notes that bring an element of softness to a character who can too easily become harsh. But, make no mistake, she is definitely a gritty soul presence in a world growing increasingly slick and sophisticated. It's interesting that Robin chose to end the first act with Scott's big number, rather than bringing the new, Effie-less "Dreams" out for that little, controversial tag. And the 16 bars of riffy "stay, stay and love me" pleas that Holliday performed on the 1982 Tony Awards, but are not on her Grammy winning recording, are gone as well. Also, Scott performs the song one step down from the original key, if I'm not mistaken. All that goes to show that it's an iconic moment, treated lovingly and effectively, with the opening night audience whooping its approval even as the lights came up for intermission.
Britney Coleman at times evokes the young Whitney Houston in her portrayal of Deena Jones, thrust a little against her will into a pop spotlight and a romance not of her making. If she lacks a little dramatic gravitas, she makes up for it with a smooth singing voice and engaging girl-next-door persona. And Coleman, a veteran of the Team StarKid internet phenomenon (check out her appearance in "A Very Potter Musical" if you don't believe me) showed her professionalism on opening night when one of her earrings broke and fell off at a key moment. She calmly picked it up, and then took off the other one, without missing a word.
Rashidra Scott was clearly an audience favorite that night, as the veteran of four musicals on Broadway blew the roof off the Marriott with her incredibly well-placed high belt voice. She can probably sing anything in the Motown and contemporary Broadway repertoires better than almost anyone I have ever heard. Brava!
The other audience favorite was Eric Lajuan Summers, veteran of three shows on Broadway, whose voice as James "Thunder" Early ranged from silky smooth to soul sass to gospel shout with nary a pause in between. He was hilarious and troubling and a force of nature--just right. Bravo, indeed!
Byron Glenn Willis, a true Chicago theater veteran, is not the strongest singer I have ever heard as Curtis, yet he is sexy as the character, and committed and right on point as an actor. It's hard to be charming and crooked while romancing the two leading ladies, but he did an admirable job. As his rival and co-worker amid the payola-ridden world this musical depicts, Trinity P. Murdock brings palpable street cred to the dignified Marty. And Travis Turner, as the slightly nerdy but compassionate C.C., was engagingly sympathetic, though I think his solo in "Family" wanted more time to breathe.
Actually, there were several times in this production that I felt the tempos were maybe a bit pushed. And at other times, notably in the title song, I felt that the performers simply need more time in their roles to click together in ensemble, in audience engagement and in choreography. But I trust that these will grow and mature during the run.
It's quite an achievement for any theater company to mount a credible "Dreamgirls," frankly, with its casting challenges, costume budget and high energy performance level. But Robin's Marriott "Dreamgirls" succeeds on many levels. It never stops moving, and it frequently moves the audience as well. It could use a few more moments of show biz euphoria, and should settle into a few more moments of calm. But overall, I highly recommend it. The gowns, the glamour, the arms, the tears, the friendships, and the hard work of stardom are all on display. Theatrical success (for Bennett and company and for the Marriott) and musical success (for Diana Ross, Jennifer Holliday, Doug Peck and more) coalesce into a crash course in how to become a legend, and how to remain there for decades. You should see it.
"Dreamgirls" by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen plays at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire, Illinois, through November 4, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. For tickets call 847.634.0200 or go to www.ticketmaster.com, or visit www.marriotttheatre.com for more information.