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BWW Review: Catharsis and Spangles: DREAMGIRLS, ArtsCentric Style

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Catharsis and Spangles from ArtsCentric

BWW Review: Catharsis and Spangles: DREAMGIRLS, ArtsCentric Style

Dreamgirls, now presented by the ArtsCentric company at Baltimore Center Stage's Pearlstone Theater, takes on some big subjects: the strained relationship between the worlds of R&B/soul and pop music, the compromises involved when Black artists pursue White audiences, the compromises that the business of music-making imposes on everyone who enters it, the distinction (when it exists at all) between all those compromises and selling out, and the claims of personal loyalty in navigating all of the above questions. Not to mention all kinds of gender dynamics issues. And you could throw in the morality of payola for that matter. That's a lot for one show. And it's a show tasked with handling all this via the mediums of melodramatic musical and roman à clef, which make a lot of their own demands. With so many moving parts, not everything is likely to work brilliantly. And let's stipulate that book writer and lyricist Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger were not Sondheim. What they gave us in this 1981 show was serviceable, not brilliant, the result of a long development process largely aimed at repairing holes in the melodrama. The result: the company that puts on the show has a heavy lift indeed.

But I have to say that ArtsCentric proves to have very strong arms. The melodramatic songs froth with beautifully-delivered intensity, the broad comedy connects, the pastiche R&B and crossover songs are convincingly-enough sung, and the acting is - well, I was going to say Center Stage quality, which is a strange thing to say when the show is already physically at Center Stage and under Center Stage's aegis, but the performances are where the Arts Centric element becomes most influential. ArtsCentric is explicitly dedicated to African American performing arts, drawing on rich traditions of performance and training that have not usually been central to Center Stage's offerings in the past. And a show all about Black performers and promoters is going to draw on styles of song and dance and speech that play to ArtsCentric's strengths.

To choose the most obvious example, the tentpole song in the show, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is almost inconceivable to be sung by anyone but a Black woman. We're talking about a song style and a manner of delivery that has roots in the Black church, and it is occasioned by an act of betrayal that owes everything to the racial context that occasioned it. The night I saw it, Effie, the character who sings it, was portrayed by Crystal Freeman, a performer I've admired for many years at Toby's Dinner Theatre. She knocked it out of the park. (Freeman is alternating the role with Catrina Brenae, whom I've not had the pleasure of seeing yet.) No more can I imagine the James Brown-like howls of character Jimmy Early being issued by a White performer. (Here Bryan Jeffrey does the honors.) The personnel of the tight band seems a lot like the roster in the band of an ArtsCentric production I saw three years ago, and the playing sounds exactly right for the material. And so it goes.

The less-than-sterling showings are on the technical side and it's not usually possible to say which company's folks might be responsible. The night I was there, there was recurrent feedback in the sound, and a couple of light cues that, if they were deliberate, made no sense to me. But these are not important flaws. (Meanwhile, the costumes, by Kitt Crescenzo, were often dazzling.)

With those minor exceptions, I felt ArtsCentric had made what there was to make of the show, which is a lot. That said, the messy plotlines, for instance the fuzziness in whether this is Effie's show or Deena's, and the roman à clef problems, persist.

An example of those problems is the reconciliation between Effie and Deena at the end. It gives away little, I think, to disclose that the Dreams, the singing group at the center of the action, is, from all appearances. based on The Supremes, the Motown supergroup. The points of similarity are legion. The creators of the show have always denied that suggestion, but that denial would have been key to the defense had Motown, The Supremes' label, or Berry Gordy, the producer responsible for both Motown and The Supremes, brought a libel suit. So we can take it with a huge grain of salt. But if this part of the show really is based on true and specific history, does that imply some responsibilities to represent the history fairly?

As was the case with the real Supremes, one member of that group is ousted and another is elevated to stardom above the others. But in Dreamgirls, the two are depicted as being publicly reconciled in a gracious gesture at the group's last show. This is not merely not historical but contrary to history; Diana Ross, the model for Deena, publicly elbowed aside one of her former Supremes colleagues at a Motown reunion concert in a gesture so unmistakably rude it was excised from the television broadcast. (The particular Supreme who was ousted, Florence Ballard, was already dead and hence not available to apologize to - or snub.) Now, it certainly could be argued that, particularly where the correspondence between Supremes and Dreams is disavowed, it's legitimate to have counter-factual events in a play. But doesn't it feel a little cheap, a little bit of a too-easy way to please the audience?

The show also presents the promotion of Deena as in large measure a way of making the music sound more appealing to the White audiences required to allow the group to "cross over" into White markets. And this does seem historical; Ross's restrained and almost affectless voice may have been key to the Supremes' success with non-Black audiences. This raises all the aforementioned issues with artistic and racial compromise in the pursuit of broader markets. The harder problem is the justification for the ouster of Effie. And here, counterfactuals rule. It appears that in real life Ballard was ousted because she had gained weight, fallen prey to drink, and become a quarrelsome and unreliable part of The Supremes' act. It may well be that these behavioral issues had some of their roots in a justified resentment of the way Ross had been elevated to run the roost in a group Ballard had started, but the firing of the character Effie can be viewed as part of manager Curtis' greed, duplicity and cultural apostasy. It's interesting, though, that in at least the movie and the original cast album of this show, Deena sounds like Diana, and Effie sounds like Aretha Franklin, which Ballard did not. If a manager were firing Aretha to make way for Diana, that certainly would be a compromise of artistic standards. Firing Ballard, by comparison at least, was not. (I should add that the way the performers in this current production deliver their songs, Aretha and Diana do not come nearly so unmistakably to mind, so that problem is not so strongly presented.)

And what are we to make of the realpolitik in the personnel moves? It's made very explicit that Curtis' preferment of Deena was because she was transparently more of a star than any of them. ("I said oh my," Curtis sings, referring to his first encounter with Deena and her total persona.) In other words, perhaps, Curtis is saying that Deena needed to be accommodated because she had a sort of manifest destiny that simply overrode considerations like personal loyalty, racial solidarity, or artistic integrity. Are we in the audience supposed to subscribe to the same notion? It's impossible to say on the evidence of the show's text.

While Dreamgirls thus has weaknesses and issues we can mull over forever, there is no need to do the same with the question whether this show is worth going to. As noted, Curtis explains that he promoted Deena because he knew she was a star from the moment he saw her. It's like that with Dreamgirls. You have to forget about the sum of the parts. The overall effect is cathartic; you will enjoy the songs; you will cheer at the end. You will forget the questions about compromise of artistic integrity and abandonment of roots and historicity and all that, and wallow in the great singing and the spangly costumes and, yes, even the bickering and the backbiting and the heartbreak. It's just that kind of show. And ArtsCentric is just that kind of company.

Dreamgirls, Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger, directed by Kevin S. McAllister with Cedric D. Lyles, Musical Supervisor, presented through December 12 by ArtsCentric in the Pearlstone Theater of Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $45 at www.centerstage.org/visit/box-office or 410-332-0033. Adult themes.

Photo credit: Bill Geenan.


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