BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS, Savoy Theatre
For UK audiences, Dreamgirls will be more familiar from the critically acclaimed 2006 film, but incredibly, the iconic musical started life on Broadway all the way back in 1981. The UK debut of the stage show has been a long time coming, but is absolutely worth the wait.
The story, based loosely on that of The Supremes, follows three young black singers in 1960s trying to make it big and shows how music can sell out to the pressures of money and fashion.
As the girls start to rise from the backstreets to fame and success, their manager decides to replace Effie, the lead, as she's not thin or beautiful and doesn't sound white enough in order to push the group to stardom. From there, the consequences for each member of the group are explored as friendships are destroyed, lovers cast aside and money corrupts.
The girls begin their career as backing singers to the charismatic Jimmy Early, the successful soul singer whose career limps to an end as fashions change. Adam J. Bernard has so much dynamism and magnetism in the role that there are practically sparks coming off him. It would be very easy for his character to become a parody, but Bernard immediately establishes such a powerful persona, coupled with fantastic vocals, that he makes Godfather of Soul James Brown look like a choirboy.
There will be an inevitable comparison between the actress playing Effie and the powerhouses who have come before. Most notably, the incredible Grammy and Tony-winning Jennifer Holliday, who appeared in the original Broadway show, and Jennifer Hudson from the film, who walked away with an Oscar for her efforts. These are big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Glee actress Amber Riley proves that she is more than capable of doing so. It is rare for an audience to give a standing ovation at the end of Act I, but Riley deserves it with a heartfelt and belting rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going".
But her standout performance comes with the more subtle "I Am Changing', which really showcases the light and shade in her voice, rather than just the incredibly impressive power notes. "One Night Only" is also performed with astonishing control and pathos. Her acting is brilliant, showcasing a spiky and spirited attitude with which you could cut glass.
Liisi LaFontaine's depiction of new lead singer Deena has the most growth. The shy nature of the character thrust into the spotlight by Manager Curtis means she doesn't get to really shine until Act Two, but then shine she certainly does. Her disco version of Effie's "One Night Only" is infectious and her rendition of "Listen", duetting alongside Riley, is another standout number. What's clever is that both singers excel but also allow the other to shine, without shouting each other down.
Ibinabo Jack also grabs plenty of limelight as the feisty Lorrell, her rendition of the overtly saccharine 'When I First Saw You' beautifully judged, and Tyrone Huntley is soft and gentle, if a little one dimensional, as Effie's brother C.C. Joe Aaron Reid lacks some of the charisma that made Jamie Foxx such a superb Curtis Taylor Jr. in the film, but holds his own, especially in the scene where he flings Effie so cruelly aside in his quest for the group's success.
But there's so much talent within the ensemble that it is hard to pick out particular performers. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography is so slick and tight that the energy simply bounces off the stage.
The Olivier and Tony Award-winning designer Tim Hatley works his magic here; the deceptively simple set rotates seamlessly so the performance stage is reversed into a backstage view, almost without the audience even noticing. The final scene of the girls performing surrounded by glittering crystal curtains is simply breathtaking.
With captivating staging, impeccable dance routines and flawless singing, this is an astonishingly good musical. Welcome to the West End, Dreamgirls - it's a dream to have you!
Photo Credit: Brinkoff/Mogenburg