Photo: Joan Marcus
Book & Lyrics: Tom Eyen
Music: Henry Krieger
Directed & Choreographed by: Robert Longbottom
Starring: Moya Angela, Chester Gregory, Syesha Mercado, Chaz Lamar Shepperd, Adrienne Warren, and Trevon Davis
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through April 4, 2010
“Dreamgirls” has opened on the Ahmanson stage in a blitz of glitz and sound to blast you away. This Broadway hit from the 1980’s has been enlarged a bit from the 2006 movie, and the staging has been goosed up even more with huge panels of LED dazzle. It is over the top. If you love to say “yes” to whipped cream, fudge sauce, sprinkles and nuts on your ice cream, “Dreamgirls” almost certainly will do the trick. It is nothing if not a guilty pleasure. Food for sustenance? Not so much.
Apparently based on the story of the Supremes, though the authors will deny that to their graves, the story and music are simple. Three young black women singers travel from Chicago to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to compete. They do not get the prize, but are spotted by Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), a cagey Cadillac dealer turned agent/promoter who pushes his way into representing them. He convinces the male soul singer/band leader of the moment, Jimmy (Chester Gregory) to use them as backup girls.
From the beginning, Effie (Moya Angela), overweight, filled with attitude, and a voice of overwhelming power, bristles at being backup to a male star. Oleaginous Curtis sweet-talks and beds Effie. After singing backup, the girls become a hit on their own. But Curtis announces that for this Effie – despite her voice and because of her appearance – will be relegated to backup for her own group. The slender and beautiful Deena (Syesha Mercado) is elevated to the lead based on her looks. Effie has a melt down. Angela has the voice and lungs to make Effie’s agony riveting. A new singer takes Effie’s place in the trio; with Deena as lead they go on to fame and fortune. Effie is out of the picture and Deena replaces her in Curtis’ bed as well.
Curtis’ big idea is that only blacks turn out for soul music, but a crossover from soul to pop will sell to white audiences, as well as blacks. He manages to get the reluctant Jimmy to make the change and pulls off the incredible coup of booking them all in Miami, a bastion of white entertainers in the 60’s. The trio, themselves, take to stardom and revel in gowns that are more engineering feat than couturier. It is impossible to explain the wizardry of William Ivey Long’s designs for elaborate costumes that magically change before your eyes. The Dreams music makes the transition and their choreography … well, one can only describe it as becoming more white. For seven years this formula is the path to fame.
The Dreams are not the only ones to be co-opted and controlled by Curtis. Jimmy is co-opted by him too, bridling all the while. “Dreamgirls” is good, old fashioned, Las Vegas show time entertainment. While Moya Angela’s voice is arresting and her pain palpable, Chester Gregory’s Jimmy is the life of the production. Gregory is the grease ball you love to hate. His dancing dwarfs the flexibility of Gumbo, and he only heeds gravity when it works to his advantage. He brings a wonderful comedic sense to the part. The other parts are played more or less straightforwardly. Fifteen minutes into the first act the broad outline of the plot would be fairly obvious, even if you never knew about the Supremes and never saw earlier productions or the movie. In my book it is Gregory’s performance that lights up the stage.
“Dreamgirls” is a whiz-bang entertainment; there is no denying that. Loud, in your face, unrelenting, it attracts audiences who may never have seen a musical before. The music is generally not memorable – in a sense that is the point. The staging and costumes are intricate, spectacular and ingenious. But much of the choreography is upstaged by the costumes. While that, too, is the point it may not be enough for a more sophisticated theatergoer. Go for the Vegas gang buster production, enriching, great theater it is not.