BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS Dazzles and Shines at Footlite Musicals
Female camaraderie has become the clichéd frontline for many a blockbuster hit because few women can resist the allure of a chick flick. That was my initial impression of what Dreamgirls would encompass when I took my seat at Footlite Musicals. I anticipated a predictable yet relatable portrayal of the trials that plague women in friendship and the worthwhile moments that bring them together. And while Dreamgirls was just that, it was speaking to the cast that led me to see that something more simmered beneath the surface.
Rayanna Bibbs, who portrays Effie in the musical, puts that something more quite plainly: "We are a family." That is what drew the audience into this musical, which centers around a group of female performers and the men that enter, influence, and sometimes leave their lives. Yet throughout it all, the simple fact that they are family unites them across a massive fallout and multiple decades.
Each leading lady approached their role as a challenge and also a creation of love. In speaking to each woman in turn, the common theme was a deep dedication to portraying their role well and ensuring their character evolved in a way that showed not just musical flair but also a fully developed personality that moved and shifted during the major moments of their character's life.
I begin uncharacteristically with the "middle child" in this musical saga, Lorrell. Lorrell is portrayed by Tiffany Gilliam, who describes her character as naive and eager. As the female song group endures ups and downs in success, a shift in management, and a falling out, her bottom line is to do what she loves but do it all with her friends. This naiveté continues until, as Tiffany put it, "Jimmy rocked her world." Jimmy is a singing sensation with personality for days, and Lorrell is completely taken in by him. Tiffany would happily be Lorrell's friend in real life but would warn her to stay away from this unfortunate influence. However, it is Lorrell growing up and the way Tiffany portrays it that helps Lorrell move from the "middle child" to a woman who can stand alone.
Michelle Morris is another character who at first seems as if she could disappear into the woodwork, but Vanessa Web was sure to bring her subtle influence to the forefront when she took on the role. Many characters could turn to the film version of Dreamgirls to draw inspiration, but since Michelle was relatively neglected, Vanessa got to make Michelle her own creation. When asked if she would be friends with her character, she quickly replied, "I think I am my character." Michelle comes in to replace someone, which creates quite a chip on her shoulder. But Vanessa fought to show how Michelle asserts herself and finds her place by providing the catalyst that reunites these women, whose voices truly are the stuff of dreams.
Kat Council took on the mammoth job of portraying Deena Jones, the eventual lead singer of the group. This role is often taken to be a partial mirror of the life of Diana Ross, and Kat took that to heart as she spent hours researching Diana on YouTube so she could make Deena come to life as the powerhouse she is. Her dedication was born of a disappointment six years ago when she auditioned for this show and was not cast. Her daring and bravado this time, however, landed her a lead. And although Kat would not consider herself as wanting to be Deena's friend in the end, she cannot help but admire the glitz and glamour of this iconic female figure.
Finally, I turn to Effie, as brought to life by Rayanna Bibbs. Effie's evolution is bumpy as she moves from front woman to unwanted diva. Rayanna focused her research on Florence from The Supremes to bring her character to life. She notes that Effie puts up a front of confidence that hides a very vulnerable woman inside. That is why Rayanna says she falls prey to the notice of Curtis; all she really wanted was to be loved. Curtis gave her the attention she craved, and the loss of that attention sends her into a dramatic spiral that leads to her ejection from the group by the very man who claimed to love her. Rayanna would rather not be Effie's close friend because of her rather loud and demanding personality, but she does bring across an underlying strength in Effie that allows her to transcend the past and build a future.
The love of these actresses for the women they portrayed made Dreamgirls not only enjoyable on a superficial level but resounding on a deeper level as it causes you to feel with the women on stage and want to become a part of their dream.
From the swish of the golden dresses to the silver zoot suits to the huge smiles of the Dreamettes, Dreamgirls at Footlite Musicals sure brought it last Friday night. Dreamgirls is a musical documenting the blood, sweat, and tears of a struggling girls group rise to the top of the charts and the positive/negative effects of showbiz mixed with some brilliant vocals.
Having previously seen the 2006 film starring Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles, I was honestly prepared to be underwhelmed by the performance. While no one can compare to our beloved Bey, I can truthfully say that this cast give her a complete run for her money, which is no small feat. The sheer power of the vocals from the Dreamettes (Rayanna Bibbs as Effie, Kat Council as Deena, Tiffany Gilliam as Lorrell, and Vanessa Web as Michelle) was spot on, and I absolutely cannot say enough about the power ballads that totally blew me away.
Especially in the song 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going', Bibbs proves in her amazing solo what a mistake it was for me to even compare it with the movie. Her huge, deep, and powerful voice seemed to swallow up the room, blowing away the memory of Jennifer Hudson's version.
On a more technical note, I would like to give major kudos to Daniel Kingler. I'm not one to usually mention nor even notice hair in a show, but I would like to point out the professional caliber of the hair/makeup design. It was way above the line of what a normal community theater usually goes through for a show. According to his bio, Daniel's work can be seen in the touring Motown the Musical show that recently came through Indy, and I can definitely see how that has brilliantly transitioned into this show.
From previously being extremely involved in community theater in my younger days, I do have to point out the impeccable choreography shown throughout the show. Athleticism is most assuredly on display in this show from the synchronized dance moves that bring forth the sexiness of the Sixties and Seventies to the pelvic-thrusting charmer, Jimmy Early (Brenton Anderson).
"I can't sing no more sad songs!" hollers Jimmy at one point, calling an early end to 'I Meant You No Harm'. Truthfully, I can't blame him. This cast is a most welcome addition to anyone who likes their show full of fun and energetic delight. Dreamgirls runs at Footlite Musicals until May 21st.
Photo Credit: Zach Rosing