BWW Review: DREAMGIRL DEFERRED Dares to Dream at Vincent Victoria Presents
Florence Ballard's story is hands down one of the most tragic tales in modern music. She was the founder of The Supremes, but found herself unceremoniously booted out as Motown mastermind Berry Gordy envisioned the group as simply back up for his star Diana Ross. Ballard was the one with the biggest voice, and the competition was just not allowed. Florence's story has been loosely translated to the musical DREAMGIRLS, but this production is the first time anyone has attempted to tell the real deal of what went down. Vincent Victoria Presents delivers another outstanding production chock full of pop culture and reverence for the black female icons of the past. It's the perfect show for Black History Month!
DREAMGIRL DEFERRED follows a pattern Vincent Victoria Presents has established for the structure of their shows. It is a filmic approach to black history with many short scenes strung together, and a large ensemble is utilized to play the characters at various ages. In the first act we see Florence Ballard near the end of her career in a recovery center on her birthday with her mother and husband visiting. This is juxtaposed with various flashbacks to a younger Florence working with The Supremes. During act two we are transported to a show where she is attempting a comeback, and this is again contrasted with the past.
Two actresses play Florence with Maya Flowers portraying The Supremes era and Melissa Leon taking on the fallen star parts. Maya gets the meatier parts or at least the better days, and she plays them well all the while looking a good deal like Florence from that time period. Melissa has to play broken more often than not, and she rises up to the challenge of carrying the tragic era with a simple graceful approach that works well. If I was going to simplify things I would say Maya brings the fire while Melissa provides the ice to create a complete portrait of the complex lady who founded The Supremes and then struggled to live past it.
The rest of the cast are familiar faces from Vincent Victoria's burgeoning company of actors, and they play various roles in the production. Shavon Majoi and Tabi Lee round out The Supremes as young Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. Shavon has done her homework, and nails the presence and moves of young Diana. This is not an easy feat considering most of us are more familiar with the grand dame version that has been around for the last few decades. She pulls off just being a smidge more sophisticated than the other girls, and has a luminous quality that makes Gordy falling for her believable. Tabi Lee similarly perfectly captures Mary Wilson, a likeable figure who seems fine just to be on the Miss Ross train. She's a survivor who can't be bothered with the politics of showbiz.
Notable standouts include Harold Jay Trotter as Motown legend Berry Gordy. He gets the task of playing an unlikeable figure, but at the same time seems charming enough to follow. Todd Greenfield brings humor to his roles which equate to "cranky old white men that we giggle at". Maurice Price and Kenneth Grissom team up to play Thomas Chapman the driver who married Florence. They offer a lot of depth to a part that could easily just be a bad guy taking advantage of a celebrity. Agnes "Aggie B" Balka has one of the night's most genuine performances as the mother of Florence. I believed every single word out of her mouth, and she brings a lot to the stage.
Technically things are well thought out. Christopher Young's set design is simple by necessity, and works well to just establish concepts of various spaces. Daniel Brown's costuming is on point, and the eras are created very well throughout. Vincent Victoria's direction is crisp, and he keeps the actors flying in a flurry throughout without any missteps or stumbles in pacing or tone. He uses the venue like a pro utilizing every inch of the Midtown Arts Center to realize his vision.
The play works best when it drifts away from DREAMGIRLS territory and dares to give us a deeper narrative of the real gritty story of Florence Ballard. It only stumbles when it tries to be a musical. Not that any of the numbers are bad, but the voices of Diana Ross and Florence Ballard are so recognizable no actor or singer could compare. I wish there had been some level of lip synch just so that I could hear the original artists that inspired the history. Everyone in DREAMGIRL DEFERRED is brave enough to try, but that is too tall an order for mere mortals. The best passages of the show are the dramas away from the concerts - the training sessions, the backstage squabbles, the dreary parts of driving to a gig. Those moments pop, and they are the ones that we're clamoring for. Some of the scenes and songs do linger a bit, but on the whole the show is kept tight and works to fill in gaps that audiences probably never knew about the real people involved with The Supremes.
It's a unique story, and one that should be told as a lesson in what women meant in music and perhaps still do. Every generation seems to have their Florence Ballard - ultra talented singers who get tossed aside because they don't fit a look or a concept of what a record label wants in its catalog. Figures like Martha Walsh remind us that talent is often shirked in favor of image and commercial viability. And we see people like Beyonce still emerging from girl groups to take over the world, and wonder about those they left behind. DREAMGIRL DEFERRED brings to light the slights of history and the crime of leaving talent to wither on its own.
DREAMGIRL DEFERRED runs weekends at the Midtown Arts Center through Sunday March 1st. Tickets can be acquired at the website https://www.vincentvictoriapresents.com/ . The show lasts roughly two hours with an intermission.