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BWW Reviews: DREAMGIRLS at Tennessee Performing Arts Center

When Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981 at the Imperial Theater, actress Jennifer Holliday rewrote theatrical history with her incendiary performance as Effie Melody White, the divinely talented and exquisitely tortured character at the center of the Tom Eyen-Henry Krieger musical. News of Holliday's theatrical fireworks spread quickly across the country and virtually everyone who loved musical theater knew of her performance of the show's "And I'm Telling You (I'm Not Going)." It's the stuff great theater is made of, to be certain.

And I remember - as clearly as if it were yesterday - Holliday's riveting performance of the song on the 1982 Tony Awards, that prompted me to book a flight to New York, buy a ticket and to see for myself this Broadway legend in the making. Holliday was spectacular and I fell deeply in love with Dreamgirls, brought so vividly to life onstage by director/choreographer Michael Bennett.

Now, in a sumptuously mounted revival touring the country, director/choreographer Robert Longbottom - who made his Broadway debut with Side Show, a musical of similar themes (again with music by Henry Krieger) that had the same visceral impact on me - has re-fashioned Dreamgirls for the new millennium, while remaining faithful to the original material. The result is musical theater at its best, telling a universal tale filled with onstage spectacle and backstage drama that is as stunning and as moving as the Broadway original.

Featuring a superb production design that instantaneously transports audiences to the early 1960s and the Apollo Theatre (where this dazzling revival got its start in the U.S. last year), where we first meet the struggling girl group, The Dreamettes, who have taken a train from their home in Chicago to compete for a week's booking at the famed New York venue. From those first few moments, during which we come to know Effie (Patrice Covington), Deena (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (Adrienne Warren) as naïve young girls, to the final, eye-popping finale where we see them as the seasoned pros they have finally become, Dreamgirls offers a microcosm of American pop music in the last half of the 20th century. Eyen's book, in finely-tuned and kaliedoscopic style, focuses on the story of the Dreamettes, who later become The Dreams, to tell this all-American story with which anyone in the audience can identify. In short, Dreamgirls is the never-changing story of the pursuit of the American dream and the hard-fought realities of such a driven pursuit.

With Robin Wagner's wonderfully imaginative scenic design, which features five towering LED screens upon which the world (or so it seems) is projected, Ken Billington's atmospheric, moody and evocative lighting design, and William Ivey Long's stunningly conceived and exquisitely realized costume design (if only I had a nickel for every sequin, bugle bead and paillette on that stage, I could retire) that itself offers a view of the latter half of the last century, Dreamgirls is one of the most beautiful shows to ever grace the Tennessee Performing Arts Center stage.

With these impressive physical trappings surrounding the ensemble, the audience gets their money's worth from Dreamgirls, but when you consider the wealth of talent found on that stage, I suspect TPAC officials and show producers could set up a booth outside to collect more ticket money from a completely enraptured audience as they leave the theater. The show really is that good.

And thanks to the strong support from the musicians in the pit, under the direction of conductor Alvin Hough Jr. and featuring the talents of eight Nashville musicians (including Paul Ross, Robby Shankle, Paul Ross, Jeff Jansky, Bernie Walker, Bill Huber, Ron Sorbo and Jeff Lisenby), Dreamgirls is on sure musical footing.

Covington's voice is astonishingly clear, shaded with all the colors of the rainbow as she brings Effie to life onstage with confidence. While I still prefer Holliday's original performance of "And I'm Telling You..." (primarily because of Bennett's original staging, which made the scene far more compelling than Longbottom's more over-the-top and, thus, more manipulative staging), Covington's is nothing short of stupendous and she wrings every possible emotion from this anthemic tune that's become a pop standard as sure as it has become one of the theater's most enduring showtunes. And has there ever been a better first act closer than this one? Probably not. Covington's big second act ballad, "I Am Changing" is perhaps more emotionally draining (you might keep your handkerchiefs at the ready for this one) and Longbottom's clever staging of the number is truly astonishing.

Mercado, the American Idol third-place finisher of a few years back, is definitely at home in the theater and she delivers a heartfelt performance of the character (perhaps modeled on Diana Ross, but even after 30 years no one's admitting that for certain) and she shows off her own vocal prowess throughout the show, particularly in her late second act duet with Covington on "Listen," the Oscar-nominated song from the film version of the musical that made it a solo for Beyonce. Adrienne Warren as Lorrell, the third member of the Dreams, is in fine voice and shows a flair for comedy with her well-fleshed-out portrayal. Warren is given her own notable vocal showcase in Act Two's "Ain't No Party." The beautiful Margaret Hoffman, playing Michelle Morris (the singer brought in to replace the increasingly difficult Effie), is charmingly believable in the role.

The impressive ladies of the cast are matched by the equally laudable men, including Chaz Lamar Shepherd (as the dastardly Curtis Young Jr., the overly ambitious and conniving agent who drives the Dreams to the top of the pop charts), Trevon Davis (as Effie's songwriter brother, C.C., whose betrayal of his sister is keenly felt and heartbreakingly played) and Milton Craig Nealy (as Marty, the ousted manager of James "Thunder"Early who returns to usher Effie's way back onto the charts). Shepherd is easy to hate in his role, which is testament to his immense talent, which is exemplified in his musical numbers. Davis' performance of "Family" in Act One is particularly well-played and the number remains one of the show's signature tunes.

While the Dreams are, essentially, the stars of Dreamgirls, the real "star" of the first act is Chester Gregory, as the aforementioned James "Thunder" Early. From his first moment onstage, Gregory wrests control of the audience and delivers a performance that is staggering in its sheer theatricality and his complete and utter control, which makes Jimmy's ultimate un-doing - in the form of an onstage breakdown during a Democratic Party fundraiser - all the more compelling. Clearly, both Gregory and Jimmy Early are forces to be reckoned with.

- Dreamgirls. Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen. Music by Henry Krieger. With additional material by Willie Reale. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. National touring company at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through October 31. For details, visit the TPAC website at www.tpac.org.



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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis