BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS at Dallas Theater Center

Prior to my attendance at Dallas Theater Center's DREAMGIRLS this weekend, my familiarity with the show was based on the 2006 motion picture and the 2001 Actors Fund concert recording (not to mention the Tony Awards clip featuring Jennifer Holliday). Basically knowing only the film, I had often considered how smoothly the stage show could handle the onstage to backstage transitions, given the fast-paced musical score it followed. And, although the DTC production offers a slick, seamless interpretation of the piece, I'm afraid I left the theatre with the impression that the (gasp) movie adaptation was superior to the stage version. That being said, there are still many reasons to head to the Wyly to see this production.

BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS at Dallas Theater Center
Kristen Bond, Alexis Sims and Marisha Wallace in DREAMGIRLS. Photo by Karen Almond.

The curtain rises on a montage of acts competing in the Apollo Theatre's talent contest in the 1960s. The scene is somewhat chaotic, but comes to life when Kristen Bond, Alexis Sims, and Marisha Wallace (as Lorrell, Deena, and Effie, respectively) take center stage, singing "Move (You're Steppin' On My Heart)." Although the girls don't take home the grand prize that night, their dreams come true in meeting former-car-salesman-turned-music-manager Curtis Taylor, Jr (Derrick Davis). Curtis connects the girls with James "Thunder" Early (the crowd-pleasing Eric LaJuan Summers), whom they recognize as a famous R&B ("Rough and Black," he says) singer. Using songs written by Effie's brother C.C. (played by a charming Clinton Greenspan), Jimmy and his girls rise on the pop charts - and the girls eventually break away and sign a major record deal of their own. Show business isn't always as pretty as it seems on the outside, though, and the plot thickens when Curtis insists that Deena replace Effie as the group's lead singer, despite the fact that Curtis and Effie are in a romantic relationship. In fact, quite a few relationships are formed between the girls and the men they travel with, largely contributing to the ups and downs of the story.

Taking advantage of the Wyly Theatre's flexible design, director Joel Ferrell and scenic designer Bob Lavallee have created a thrust style stage. Although this creates a perfect system to portray the onstage and backstage elements of the show, Ferrell often stages the action internally, with the actors' backsides constantly facing the audience. From row three on the right side of the theatre, a lot of the action was disconnected and out of view. On the other hand, the show moves at an impressive pace, with seamless transitions between the nearly thirty songs and endless locations. Ferrell greatly succeeds in drawing out exciting, honest performances from (most of) his accomplished actors, but the show would greatly benefit by turning out toward the ticket buyers once in a while.

The highlight of the show is truly any moment Marisha Wallace steps on stage. With her eager and aggressive approach, there's never a question of what Wallace's Effie White wants, or how much she's willing to fight for it. Not only does Wallace's voice soar on her epic ballad "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going" (a unique, refreshing take on the number), but she shines whether she's centerstage or singing "oohs and ahhs"' as back up. Wallace has appeared on Broadway in SOMETHING ROTTEN, ALADDIN and on tour with THE BOOK OF MORMON, and if the charismatic energy she exudes is any indication, there's no doubt her talent will continue to take her far.

If the DREAMGIRLS were anything like the 90's pop group Destiny's Child, backup singer Lorrell would typically fit the Michelle Williams mold, as the underappreciated sidekick without an identity. But Booker T. Washington-grad Kristen Bond's Lorrell is sassy, sexy, and hilariously squeaky. Not only does her youthful magnetism draw constant attention, but she manages to transform small moments into comedic milestones as well.

Unfortunately, Alexis Sims (Deena) and Derrick Davis (Curtis Taylor ,Jr.) pale in comparison, never matching their co-stars natural ease and passion. Ms. Sims shows great potential at the start of the show with her sweet, but subdued approach, but when given the opportunity to shine as the group's leader, her lack of command leaves her as nothing more than a pretty face. On the rare occasion that Sims lets her hair down and wails, it's clear that she has the talent, but her opening night performance lacked any soul or fire. As her manager (and later, lover), Mr. Davis feels emotionally detached, never showing as much interest in the girls as he does in their success and the money and fame that come with it. Davis has performed in THE LION KING on Broadway and on tour, and has an impressive vocal gift, but his wooden performance at DTC lacks the necessary charm.

The lively ensemble and supporting cast is jam-packed with talent, including some standout performances by Traci Elaine Lee, Walter Lee, Jeremy Davis and Alex Organ, among others. All of the performers nail Rickey Tripp's bold choreography, and manage to perfectly set the tone of the 1960s-1970s dizzying music scene. Lap Chi Chu's lighting is stunning, and Karen Perry's tremendous costume design (from the subtle piano-inspired fringe dresses to the Cinderella-like transformations) are truly worth the price of the ticket alone.

The greatest problem with DREAMGIRLS onstage is Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's choice to musicalize so much plot that could more effectively be spoken. (This same malady similarly affected Krieger's already troubled musical SIDE SHOW.) With minor moments being drawn out over song, the show comes to a halt late in the script, as some significant plot points are rushed into a narration; yet others (like Lorrell and Michelle Morris's relationship troubles) are given far too much focus. Thanks to movie magic, a top-notch cast and Bill Condon's edited script, the film manages to highlight all of the musical's best moments, without drawing out some less important plot points.

Despite a few minor flaws, the Dallas Theater Center production of DREAMGIRLS provides an endless list of joyful moments, and features star-making performances from both local and Broadway talent. Musical numbers like "Move," "Steppin' To The Bad Side," "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going," and "I Am Changing" are some of the most thrilling numbers on a DFW stage in recent memory. The show runs through July 24th at the Wyly Theatre. Tickets and more information can be found at www.DallasTheaterCenter.org

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From This Author Kyle Christopher West

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