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BWW REVIEW: Dream Cast Ignites DREAMGIRLS at NSMT

Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen; music by Henry Krieger; directed and choreographed by Nick Kenkel; music direction, Jesse Vargas; scenic design, Evan A. Bartoletti; resident costume designer, Paula Peasley-Ninestein; lighting design, Kendall Smith; sound design, Michael Eisenberg; wig and hair design, Gerard Kelly; production stage manager, John Godbout

Starring in Alphabetical Order:

Breanna Bartley as Michell Morris, Britney Coleman as Deena Jones, Grasan Kingsberry as Curtis Taylor, Jr., JC Montgomery as Marty, Bryonha Marie Parham as Effie Melody White, Destinee Rea as Lorrell Robinson, Eric LaJuan Summers as James "Thunder" Early, and Noah A. Ricketts as C.C. White

Ensemble:

Esther M. Antoine, Tamala Baldwin, Reggie Bromell, Darren Bunch, Alia Hodge, AJ Lockhart, Tim McGarrigal, Ashley McManus, NaTonia Monet, Clinton Roane, Allysa Shorte, Alex Swift, Rickey Tripp and Akron L. Watson

Performances and Tickets:

Final performance June 14; tickets priced from $54 to $79 and are available online at www.nsmt.org or by calling the Box Office at 978-232-7200; next up, "Shrek: The Musical" July 7-19

Director Nick Kenkel, whose direction and choreography of CHICAGO at North Shore Music Theatre last season reinvented the iconic Kander and Ebb musical for the Beverly theater-in-the-round, has made lightning strike a second time with his dazzling and definitive production of DREAMGIRLS. Blessed with a dream design team and a tremendously talented cast of triple threats, Kenkel has dug beneath the glitz and the glamour of the American music industry to explore the hopes, joys, disappointments and sorrows that accompany stars on the way up and back down.

Evoking the meteoric rise to fame and fortune by Motown artists like The Temptations, James Brown, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, DREAMGIRLS follows a 1960s girl group whose unique new sound revolutionizes R&B and sparks the crossover of soul singers onto the pop charts. Discovered and then handled by the ambitious Berry Gordy-like music mogul Curtis Taylor, Jr. (a dangerously charming Grasan Kingsberry), the wide-eyed teenaged "Dreamettes" from Chicago quickly transform into the international singing sensation known as Deena Jones and the Dreams.

There's fallout along the way, though, as the group's original gospel-inspired lead singer Effie Melody White (the marvelous Bryonha Marie Parham) is replaced by the more beautiful, softer-sounding Deena (the elegant Britney Coleman). It's a change Curtis believes must be made in order to appeal to the mainstream where white disc jockeys make or break careers. Tragically, it also means that Curtis inevitably replaces Effie with Deena as his lover, as well.

Unlike the national tour that roared through Boston a few years ago, this NSMT production knows when to turn down the volume to focus on the story. Yes, the hair-raising power ballads like Effie's show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" are all there in full force. But Kenkel, music director Jesse Vargas and their sterling cast are equally comfortable "Steppin' to the Bad Side" one minute and crooning sweet songs like "Family" and "When I First Saw You" the next. Even "Cadillac Car," the male bonding song that has Curtis first take note of the songwriting talent of Effie's brother C.C. (Noah A. Ricketts), sheds new light on the obstacles that black artists of the time faced in achieving their American Dream.

As Effie, Parham is a standout among a cast of standouts. She can be both irritating and sympathetic, a dynamo whose talent is practically bursting at the seams to break free. Her early joy is matched agonizingly by her later crushing rejection, with opposing passions colliding full force in her magnificent "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Determination and desperation fuel her scintillating performance. Even when she seeks to mount a comeback by singing "I Am Changing," her drive and self-confidence still threaten to undermine her return.

Coleman is quietly assured as Deena. She moves convincingly from one of Effie's shy back-up singers to a worldwide superstar. Destinee Rea is a feisty Lorrell Robinson, the third member of the original trio who falls hard for soul singer turned R&B headliner James "Thunder" Early aka Jimmy (Eric LaJuan Summers). As Jimmy Summers practically channels the energy of the late James Brown. He sings with great power, he moves like the Jackson Five all rolled into one, and he performs with a knowing wit that barely contains the deep frustration he feels about crooning like Tony Bennett when he really wants to unleash the "thunder" that rightly earned him his nickname.

Ricketts is perfect as the sweet and reasonable C.C. who tries to keep peace within his extended musical "Family." Breanna Bartley as the replacement Dream Michell Morris meshes seamlessly into the trio while trying to avoid being dragged into the group's backstage drama. JC Montgomery is aggressive but ethical as the original agent for the Dreamettes, and later he becomes a firm but kind mentor for Effie when she tries to come back as a solo act.

Kingsberry has the difficult task of being driven and manipulative without turning his Curtis into a one-dimensional villain. He walks that emotional tightrope skillfully, finding and revealing his young black man's ambition to become more than a local used car salesman. As a self-made man who has applied his tremendous musical instincts and keen business savvy to create a multi-million-dollar label featuring a whole new R&B pop sound, Curtis takes no prisoners. But Kingsberry manages to show a glimmer of the love he has sacrificed in order to achieve success. When he whispers the words "Oh, my" to Deena in his beautiful rendition of the gentle "When I First Saw You," all the hurt he has caused for that moment delicately wafts away.

Evan A. Bartoletti's fluid sets and Kendall Smith's masterful lighting take us from the shadows of a back-alley recording studio to the stages of the Apollo, London's Palladium, and 1970s Las Vegas. Paula Peasley-Ninestein's eye-popping costumes simultaneously celebrate and spoof the opulence of the era's shimmering evening gowns and candy-colored wide-lapelled tuxedoes.

It is Michael Eisenberg's remarkable sound design, however, that wins the day on the technical side. The balance is so sublime and so perfectly modulated that every word, every lyric, every syllable is heard without the grotesque over-amplification that has sadly become the norm for most musicals today. Kudos, too, to music director Jesse Vargas' 10-piece orchestra whose pitch-perfect horns and hard-driving bass and percussion meld into delicious pop, gospel and soul-inflected rhythm and blues.

DREAMGIRLS is the Cadillac of Broadway musicals based on the Motown sound. At North Shore Music Theatre, director Kenkel and his superb cast and crew have polished it and buffed it and made it shine anew.

PHOTOS BY PAUL LYDEN: Bryonha Marie Parham as Effie, Britney Coleman as Deena Jones, and Destinee Rea as Lorrell Robinson; Grasan Kingsberry as Curtis Taylor, Jr., Eric LaJuan Summers as James "Thunder" Early and Noah J. Ricketts as C.C. White; Bryonha Marie Parham; Bryonha Marie Parham; Britney Coleman and Grasan Kingsberry; Eric LaJuan Summers and company


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