BWW Review: These New DREAMGIRLS in La Mirada Will Make You Happy
You can seriously feel the air of anticipation building inside the theater... not only amongst the frustrated characters on stage---in the middle of a trés scandalous drama---but also in the audience, now riveted at the edge of their seats. One by one, characters exit off in a huff, chanting "it's all over" after a rather tumultuous back-and-forth shouting match (well, singing match, actually)... leaving a devastated, tearful woman and a stubbornly closed-off man in their wake.
And then... it happens. And it is absolutely magnificent.
Arguably one of the most memorable, iconic scenes in musical theater history, the first act closer of the Tony Award-winning 1981 Broadway musical DREAMGIRLS still provides plenty of goosebumps to this day, particularly when the central performer in the nucleus of the scene dives into it with unbound gusto and sings the hell out of the song.
The song, of course, is "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)"---the guttural, emotionally-volatile diva anthem of perseverance and furious pleading written by lyricist/book writer Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger. The ultimate take-me-back song is belted to the high heavens by the just-ejected Effie White, the big-voiced, big-bodied, and (now) former member of the Dreams, the internationally-famous R&B girl group she once fronted (back when they were called The Dreammettes).
Ms. White has just found out that her combative attitude and anger-filled tirades (and multiple absences) has forced the superstar group's manager---who was also her, yikes, lover---to replace her with another singer without notice, minutes from stepping on the stage in Las Vegas.
Filled with raw, bombastic emotions, this moment in the show requires an equally bombastic performer to pull off not only its challenging musical demands but also the erratic, roller coaster of feelings exploding in the scene. For La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' glossy, highly-entertaining regional production of this juicy, behind-the-scenes stage musical about the meteoric rise and eventual break-up of a fictional (but cheekily familiar-looking) 1960's girl group, they turned to the extraordinary Moya Angela for the task.
It's understandable why she was anointed---Angela has already embodied this very same role quite well when she played Effie during the relaunched 2009 national tour production that made lauded So Cal stops both at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County several years ago. It seems logical (and smart) for producers to tap her once again.
And when your lead actress incites a boisterous standing ovation after slaying with an incredible performance of the musical's aforementioned signature song---even as the show is still in the midst of that act one ending---you know you've got something great here.
As Effie White, Angela is equal parts vulnerable and heartbroken, yet somehow also self-assured and steadfast---all discernible qualities of this iconic character that the actress has maturely fine-tuned from the last time she played this part in the national tour. And, of course, her "And I Am Telling You..." is delivered with such remarkably intense ferocity that everyone couldn't help but bolt up from their seat (including this reviewer, as I wiped tears streaming down my face). Within a span of a song, the Angela transforms methodically from angry, to remorseful, to desperate, to, finally, defiant.
Not only has she grown tremendously as an actress (she always had the amazing singing chops, thank you very much), Angela has also developed a more palpable stage presence, even as her peers ham it up around her.
I dare you to take your eyes off her every time she's on stage.
Well, okay... she may have some challengers, thanks to her awesome co-stars that are themselves worthwhile reasons to see this McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of DREAMGIRLS, which continues performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through April 17, 2016.
The ravishing Jasmin Richardson is phenomenal in the role of Deena Jones, the meek(er) member of the group, who would later be bumped up to lead singer when Effie is told her voice is just, uh, too "special" to cross over to the pop charts. As the production's master class in acting, Richardson gives out an exceptionally noticeable transition within her Deena, going from a shy, reserved young woman---perfectly content on being in the background---into the confident, sexy, and sophisticated go-getter that ascends to the forefront via a promotion and a wardrobe upgrade.
It's easy to understand---when she becomes The Dreams' new lead---why the world, the press, and the group's manager became so smitten with her. And while it's definitely a role that has the unfortunate side-effect of becoming polarizing---in that the character becomes an obstacle to our lead heroine's success story---Richardson gives her Deena a humanity that wins the audience's favor as well.
Alongside Deena throughout the journey is spunky spitfire Lorrell, the third member of the Dreams played brilliantly here by Brittney Johnson. Blessed with a bubbly presence and plenty of sassy one-liners, Ms. Johnson is wonderfully vibrant in her scenes, even if she's often playing the buffer between Deena and Effie, or playing tongue-hockey with fellow R&B firecracker James "Thunder" Early.
And speaking of... Scene-stealer David LaMarr is quite a hoot as Jimmy Early, the wild soul-funk showman with a penchant for high-energy dance moves and seducing young starlets, including Lorrell, one of the Dreamettes who sings back up for him. With every appearance, whether just to deliver a line or two or to perform a production number, LaMarr makes it a highly-entertaining event---a spectacle, actually---that reflects the character's lack of filter or inhibitions and the character's unflappable need to put on a great show. Jimmy also gets many of the show's funniest lines and scenarios, and LaMarr approaches them with incredible comic timing.
While, sure, DREAMGIRLS is definitely all about the three leading ladies (it's in the title, after all), the cast is also blessed with some admirable support from Scott A. People as music impresario/Dreams manager Curtis Taylor Jr.; John Devereaux as Effie's brother, songwriter CC White; Lorenzo T. Hughes as Marty, Jimmy's manager who later takes on managing Effie; and Danielle Truitt as Michelle, Effie's replacement in the group who ends up dating CC. The rest of the gorgeous-sounding ensemble cast provide some high-energy dancing and lots of beautiful harmonies throughout, helping to create a world rich with exciting musical possibilities.
As for this La Mirada Theatre production itself, the show is pretty much a faithful carbon-copy of that enjoyable recent national touring production---which happens to also be directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. La Mirada's offering repurposes almost all of the visual and technical aspects of that tour, from the use of moving LED screens that set up different scenes and environments to William Ivey Long's lavishly exquisite costumes. Repeat credits also include co-choreographer Shane Sparks, Scenic Designer Robin Wagner, Lighting Designer Ken Billington, and Media Designer Howard Werner---whose combined work with musical director Dennis Castellano make for a very entertaining night of escapist theater.
The production even similarly re-introduces an added song to the mix, "Listen" which has been swiped from the successful, Oscar-winning 2006 motion picture adaptation and inserted into the tour. Just like that version, La Mirada's revival features the "new" song with revamped lyrics that allows for a tender, penultimate reconciliation between newly empowered Effie and apologetic superstar Deena. It's actually quite a thrilling duet to witness, as it not-so-subtly puts a gift bow on the whole thing as a finishing touch. It's a tidy scene that overcomes its somewhat treacly machinations all thanks to a really kick-ass duet between two amazing singers where neither ever overpowers the other. It's an honest-to-goodness collaboration.
One unexpected new surprise: "When I First Saw You" sung by People as slick dictator Curtis in a seemingly somber moment, repeatedly got some chuckles during the show's recent opening night performance, a phenomenon I've never experienced before in any prior production. Who knew that song was meant to be a chance for us to laugh at Curtis' eventual comeuppance?
Sure, while the cliché "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" somewhat applies here, part of me does still feel that it would have been nice to experience a regional production of DREAMGIRLS with something---anything---slightly different from the previous tour, besides the cast. But fret not, though, because when all is said and done (and, really, seen and heard), the production that has blessed us here is an indisputable triumph, nonetheless.
Yes, they're your Dreamgirls, boys... they'll make you happy.
See BWW's Photo Coverage from the Opening Night performance HERE.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of DREAMGIRLS by Michael Lamont. Review also published in OnStage.
DREAMGIRLS is presented by The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment and continues through Sunday, April 17, 2016 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. Additionally, the production will also perform May 6-8 at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.
For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.