BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS Serenades Birmingham With Song, Soul and Sparkle
Before I begin my review, its important to explain just how special the musical DREAMGIRLS is to me. Back in 1984 when I was a kid, my mother went to New York to see the original production starring Jennifer Holiday at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. She returned with the energized spirit of a new woman. Full of smiles she recalled each magic moment of the show with my brothers and I. She described the story, actors, costumes and songs with much enthusiasm. She was beaming and could not stop talking about it. Shortly thereafter she got the soundtrack album from the record store. (That's right records) That LP was pretty much glued to the record player for what seemed like years. She played it every day, sometimes two or three times. It didn't take long for my brothers and I to become well versed in every lyric and nuance of the energizing soundtrack. The show holds a special place in my heart. It reminds me of love and struggle in my own family. The journey of these three strong black women empowered my late mother in such a positive way. Unapologetically I say this is a show that I am deeply invested in emotionally.
Red Mountain Theatre's production of DREAMGIRLS delivers a high caliber performance that exceeds any high expectation, even my own. If you are not familiar with the show, buckle up! This is a song filled emotional journey of three young black female singers rising to the top in the R&B era of The Supremes. The trio of singers are portrayed by Deena (Caprenia Anthony), Lorell (Abijah Cunningham) and Effie (Tracy Winbourn). They begin appropriately named "The Dreamettes." They start off as naive, impressionable and are an easy mark for the visionary but shady-slick Cadillac salesman Curtis (Cecil Washington Jr.) He has his own show business dreams and is determined to get there by exploiting the girls talent and feelings. The trio are taken under the wing of soul filled headliner James "Thunder" Early (Cameron White) He plays a part of the girls rise but finds his own struggle to keep his name at the top. The characters work to overcome the hurdles set before them and the hurdles they create for themselves. Love, dignity, respect; they become casualties of war in push to make the dream of fame a reality. Emotions run high as characters find the journey to fame can be devastating.
Without fail the powerful music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen touches your soul, in a way I can only describe as spiritual. I left the show in a state of euphoria. My mind was in awe and amazement of the incredible talent on the Red Mountain stage. The cast naturally captures the audience's emotions. You feel linked with the characters on stage. You WILL be touched and may even find solidarity with the persons sitting next to you, sharing tears of joy and sadness. The production embodies a cast whose talents warrant each name lit up in lights on a 50 foot marquee. Red Mountain had previously put up the production and many of the cast returned to do the show. DREAMGIRLS is directed by Henry Scott and musical direction is by Byron Thomas.
There is a scene in the play where Effie tells Deena that she wanted to speak to but was unable to reach her due to the crowd of fans standing between them. In a true example of how life imitates art. Unfortunately, I faced this same dilemma in trying to get an interview with the female leads after the performance. The row of people wanting pictures and conversations with Tracy Winborn, Caprenia Anthony and Abijah Cunningham was impenetrable. The closest I got was a brief chat with talented Caprenia Anthony who plays Deena. I asked her what drew her to the role. "I love Deena. A few of us did the show seven years ago. They asked if we would come back." Her return to the role was not free from hesitation. "I was a tad bit nervous. In these leading roles some people come into performances expecting what they saw previously on Broadway or in the movie. " She then says with a laugh and beautiful smile. "I mean I'm not Beyoncé!" True, but Anthony gives a flawless performance that hits the mark, touching you in a way that Beyoncé missed. Anthony successfully conveys Deena's journey of a good woman trying to walk on a path through fame to what makes her happy.
Tracy Winborn plays Effie and gives a performance that can only be described as blessed from above. The truth and relatability in her performance sweeps the audience in a way I have never felt before. The emotions carried in her amazing voice make you feel alive from the core of your being. Winborn has a daunting task to carry the heavy torch of past artists in this iconic role. She does it with grace, sass, respect and a powerhouse sound worthy of a smile from all the Effie's past. Be prepared for an out of body experience listening to her climatic solo "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
Abijah Cunningham dives into to the role of Lorell. The full commitment in her performance strongly conveys Lorell's journey of tenderness, pain and drive. Cunningham's stage presence brings much innocence that blossoms into an empowered woman who wont settle for less. She gives Lorell her voice that is full of strength and attitude. Her smile lights up the stage along with an abundance of skill in her performance.
The charismatic and manipulative manager Curtis is played by Cecil Washington Jr. (AEA) He gives the role an effective mix of the look Marvin Gaye, business savvy of Barry Gordy and the volatile nature of Ike Turner. It's a role that Washington dove into. "I happily accepted the role of Curtis because of the hidden complexity of his character. Most People see Curtis as the antagonist of the show. He was a man with dreams, aspirations, drive, and determination." Performing complex and layered characters is a challenge he welcomes in his acting. "I love finding roles where I have the chance to show redeeming qualities in "the bad guy" audiences might not have otherwise seen before." Washington's strong commitment to the role is evident in his effective performance of the "bad guy" paving a journey to fame, no matter the cost.
James "Thunder" Early is brought to life with gusto by actor Cameron White. The Birmingham native is excited to reprise the role. He speaks on what he has learned about performing Jimmy the second time around. "This time I know my role. I was able to do more research on who Jimmy is." Going into more detail he explains, "Jimmy is a combination of Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Rick James all wrapped up into one. Now I know who to pull out on that particular song. I learned that and I have matured." He gives reflection in his process saying, "I know to how finesse and move as a Jimmy Early." This is a true statemenT. White is a bundle of soulful energy with seeming unending power in his stage presence. He plays the superstar with multiple levels of emotion and comical wit. "Jimmy has that presence to be that light of the show, but not yet understanding that in life as in your performance you have to know when to graciously bow out or to gracefully age." He finds Jimmy's challenge is knowing "how to do what you do but to do it in a way that is accepted. Jimmy didn't do that. He wanted to stay at the top of his game at all times. He didn't want to compromise or stay relevant. This ends up being his demise in the end. It's a good life lesion." Such deep insight into the role leads White to give an amazing performance.
Brandon McCall portrays CC, the talented composer and Effie's supportive brother. He brings a strong voice and skilled acting chops. His natural performance and emotional voice is one of the key elements in the show. A role in DREAMGIRLS is something he was looking forward to. "I've been doing shows with Red Mountain for about four years now. It's home. When they put up the call I had to take advantage of it. It's a great show." He connects to passionate emotions in his dialogue and in his singing. He expresses such heavy emotions saying, "It comes form a real place. One of the things I learned at Alabama State University is a technique called being. You have to find and tap into those feelings and bring them back up and make them fit into those scenes as they will." His ability to tap into his own experiences provides an emotional performance.
Christopher Campbell plays Marty, Jimmy gruff and sour manager. He plays an old soul and carries a fantastic signature voice. When asked what brought him to role he says, "When I saw that Red Mountain was doing DREAMGIRLS. I said I gotta be a part of it." When I asked why Campbell looks at me with surprise at such a question. He enthusiastically says with a smile "Why?... Its DREAMGIRLS man!" A truer statement has never been made. He speaks on how thankful he is to be in the show. "I had to be part of it. Coming from the rich heritage Sheryl Lee Ralph, LorEtta Devine, Jennifer Holiday then to Henson Battle. Initially didn't think I would get a principal part. It was a blessing."
Director Henry Scott fell in love with the original production back in 85. When asked if he would like to direct DREAMGIRLS, he jumped at it. Talent sees no color and Scott proves that. Even though he is not black he finds the voice, tone and an effective portrayal of the subject matter. "I'm not a black guy, but I love this show. It's got a lot to say. It's a human story and an African American story. That's what drew me to it." His direction brings the cast together in a tight and expressive show. He worked with set designer Steven Fister to create visual tapestries to capture the look and feel of soul and R&B of the era. He was inspired by concepts created by the original Broadway director Michael Bennett. "He was using film techniques on the stage for the first time." His approach of using fades and slides on stage to move into the next scene give scenes seamless transitions. The cast gives Scott plenty of props for helping them deliver their performances. Cameron White says, "Henry is a storyteller. He helped every character find their story and know how to draw out that emotion for the audience to take that run with you." Cecil Washington comments, "Working with Henry Scott is always an awesome experience. It's always fascinating watching a Director's brain work, especially when they double as the Choreographer. Henry directs us but also allows us to explore on our own. That is always much appreciated." The teamwork and trust in the cast is apparent.
Scott found he became "sensitive to the dynamics in that time period with black artists. The struggle to become known, accepted gave a deeper sensitivity to journey of black artist." His cast delivers a performance he is proud of. "I have a deep love for this cast. Being in a circle of human beings who are so very loving, very accepting and very supportive of each other and of me." He looks the journey of putting up the show saying, "We all do this because we love it. We are all tying to love it and do it in a way that has integrity."
I asked the cast to reflect on unexpected discoveries in the rehearsal process. Brandon McCall discovered insight in the intricacies of show business of the time. "I knew what Black people had to go through as far as the music business. I didn't know the extent of how people got greedy, turned on their own kind, their own people." He feels the message found in DREAMGIRLS "teaches you no matter how much money you have or how much fame comes to you, you have to stay grounded. If you don't you will get lost in the entertainment industry." Cameron White reflects, "One thing I have learned in this process is know and learn the story. Know your travel pattern throughout the show. Know what story you are telling and how to draw out that emotion for the audience to take and run with you." Cecil Washington shares his approach to delivering the raw emotion saying, "I find that you must always surrender to the moment. If you stay true to what you are saying, singing or dancing to, you will never go wrong in my opinion." After sharing with him how deeply the performance touched me he comments, "It's an amazing feeling to know that you might have touched someone, or made someone feel any type of emotion. To me that means I am doing my job telling the story and that is the whole reason we are even performing!" Christopher Campbell reflects the show has taught him, "Hard work leads to success. We worked, really, really hard. We had like ten to twelve hour rehearsals some days. We have an awesome cast. If you are committed and put in hard work you gonna be allright." Looking at the plot of the show Scott reflects, "Sometimes we loose our integrity to gain success, fame, money and glory. When we do, the result is what DREAMGIRLS is about. We fall apart, we get abused, and we get punished. Then we get our moment of redemption. Turning our backs on that and realigning with integrity. Recommitting our love for one another. That's the message."
This production of DREAMGIRLS is one of the tightest and talent packed shows I have ever had the pleasure to witness. It is a journey that moves your soul and makes you feel alive. Enjoy it before the DREAMGIRLS take their final bows. All you have to do is dream and baby they'll be there.
DREAMGIRLS runs May 12 - 28 / Thurs-Sat, 7:30 pm / Sat-Sun, 2:00 pm Red Mountain Theatre 301 19th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203 Tickets range from $19 to $55 Purchase online at redmountaintheatre.org or call (205) 324-2424
Photo Credit - Stewart Edmonds