BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS at Playhouse On The Square

BWW Review: DREAMGIRLS at Playhouse On The SquareTear down the mountains. Yell, scream and shout for Dreamgirls, Playhouse on the Square's final musical offering of its 2017-2018 season. Co-directed and choreographed by Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley, Playhouse on the Square's Dreamgirls is a two and a half hour theatrical energy drink, jam packed with slick production numbers performed by a fresh cast that is plainly up to the task of quenching the audience's thirst for a great time. There is much to be excited about with this production of Dreamgirls, which seems uniquely at home in Memphis, a city whose history and reputation are so intertwined with music and the superstars it has produced. Although the first third of Act I can be described as somewhat frenetic, the production quickly settles in and finds its footing, anchored by electrifying, well-directed performances by Breyannah Tillman as Effie, and Napoleon M. Douglas as Jimmy Early.

Dreamgirls, the musical theater equivalent of VH1's "Behind the Music," traces the rise to stardom, interpersonal struggles, and ultimate reconciliation of a female vocal trio called The Dreams during the 1960s and 70s. (The Dreams are, of course, a fictional act, but are often loosely analogized to The Supremes.) Together, Effie (Ms. Tillman), Deena (Latisha E. Henderson) and Lorrell (Zan Edwards) (and later Michelle (Tiffany M. Williams)) of The Dreams chase stardom from their hometown of Chicago, to New York, and then across the country as backup singers to popular R&B star, Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Mr. Douglas). Indelibly impacting their journey is used car salesman turned Dreams' manager, Curtis (Jarrad Baker), who gets them their first break, but later breaks them when he decides that for The Dreams to be commercially successful, the public's adoration (and his personal affections) are more aptly directed at the beautiful Deena than the vocal powerhouse Effie. When Curtis decides that Deena should displace Effie as lead singer of The Dreams, the iconic, penultimate musical number of Act I, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is born. (More on that later.)

With a book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, and music by Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls is an early 1980s musical set in the 60s and 70s. To the production team's credit, Playhouse on the Square's Dreamgirls wisely adheres to that paradigm. With its set, costume and lighting design (the pre-show introduction boasted the use of 875 lights, an estimate that did not necessarily seem hyperbolic), the production seems less like a year 2018 reflection on the 60s and 70s, and more like a depiction of how the show's chronological setting would appear in a 1980s rear view mirror. The result is a production that rightly focuses less on nostalgia (e.g., Motown: The Musical, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and more on the critical character motivations, emotions and relationships at the heart of the story. Against this backdrop, and with the production's priorities well in order, two performers are uniquely able to soar:

First there is Ms. Tillman, who tackles the role of Effie (for which Jennifer Holliday won a Tony Award, and Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar). Her star power is undeniable, as is her voice, which resulted in multiple applause interruptions during each of the three major musical numbers with which she is entrusted. Her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" at the conclusion of Act I is a tour de force, impressively towing the line between an outcry for validation and an anthem of empowerment, but without the sense of ego or self-indulgence that plagues many renditions of the song. While that is impressive enough (and was all the talk of the crowd at intermission), "I Am Changing" in Act II arguably becomes even more of a crowd pleaser. What's most impressive about Ms. Tillman's Effie, however, is that it is neither Holliday nor Hudson, but a characterization that is uniquely her own - no small feat for a young performer taking on a role that is so well known and has yielded such acclaim.

Second is Mr. Douglas, who demonstrates "all in" commitment as Jimmy Early. Responsible for a slew of musical numbers, Mr. Douglas sings, dances, gyrates, drops his drawers and leaps into the audience with glee. His seemingly boundless energy is impressive, but even more so is his ability to inject authenticity and likeability into a character that could very easily become a caricature. He and Ms. Edwards as Lorrell share outstanding chemistry, and even when it becomes clear why Lorrell should kick him to the curb, one cannot help but understand why she keeps him around as long as she does.

With a pleasing vocal tone, Mr. Baker leads the male principals in formation on "Stepping to the Bad Side," which exudes brooding intensity and features Nichols's and Bradley's slick, inventive choreography. Along with the pre-"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" fugue "It's All Over" and "Heavy," it is among the production's strongest group numbers. At times, however, Mr. Baker's Curtis would benefit from less polish and restraint, and more scrappiness and outright sleaze, particularly as Curtis's schemes unravel and he loses his ability to manipulate those around him. As Deena, Ms. Henderson is at her best channeling her inner Beyonce in the fast paced disco numbers of Act II. The Dreams' sound and blend seem slightly off when Effie is not in the mix, but then again, that is the point. Also worthy of mention is Cordell Turner's subdued but strong and substantive supporting work as Effie's songwriting brother CC. His rendition of "Family" is another production highlight.

The production's opening sequences (set at a talent competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem) seem a bit like they are shot out of a cannon. While the speed of the first few musical numbers serves to excite the audience, set the tone and showcase the talented ensemble, the sung melodies and intervening dialogue at times struggle to keep pace and remain locked in with the churning of the orchestra (e.g., "Move"). Overall, those scenes (which introduce the audience to the characters and setting) would benefit from a slightly more relaxed tempo. Notwithstanding, the production truly finds its groove with "Stepping to the Bad Side," and fully succeeds the rest of the way in taking the audience on a thrilling theatrical ride.

Go see Dreamgirls, which runs until July 15 at Playhouse on the Square, 55 South Cooper Street, Memphis, Tennessee 38104. They'll make you happy.

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From This Author Chris Miritello

Chris Miritello is currently an attorney based in Memphis, Tennessee. A native of Long Island, New York, Chris graduated from Harvard College, where he was (read more...)

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