Dreamgirls is back, bigger, brighter, bolder, and more dazzling than ever. In fact, the National Tour which has just begun a two-week run at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center is one of the most visually spectacular and spectacularly performed touring productions ever. In many ways, it’s in a class all by itself.
There’s probably no need to fill anyone in on Dreamgirls’ plot (African American girl group become pop stars and lead singer becomes even bigger pop star), its songs (“One Night Only,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and the title song, to name just three), or its phenomenal success (over 1500 performances on Broadway, tons of awards, and a hit movie adaptation which finally made it to the screen fully twenty-five years after its Broadway debut).
Still, I’d venture to say than no one who’s seen Dreamgirls either on stage or in movie theaters has ever seen it quite like its current incarnation. It’s hard to say where its scenic design (by the original Broadway production’s Robin Wagner, no less) ends and its media design (by Howard Werner/Lightswitch) begins, or how Ken Billington’s lighting fits into the overall design picture, but whoever did what, the result is an animated light show sure to astonish theatergoers who think they’ve seen everything. How these designers got those five proscenium-high see-through panels to light up in the most dazzling color displays I’ve ever seen is a mystery to me, but the resulting set/lighting design takes audiences from the Apollo Theater to Las Vegas to network TV studios to Hollywood to Paris and back again in animated splendor. In the tour’s most spectacular sequence, animated dancers slowly morph into the real thing, leading to a Busby Berklee style musical number (one of those where the camera is poised above dancers moving in kaleidoscopic patterns) which combines real life chorus boys and their animated counterparts dancing in unison. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it.
Then there are William Ivey Long’s costumes, which look like the million-plus dollars they probably cost, a number of which have been designed for lightning quick costume changes. Think Cher in her Bob Mackey glamour days multiplied by a hundred. No, make that a thousand—and you’ve got some idea of just how gorgeous Dreamgirls’ costumes are.
The original Broadway production of Dreamgirls was of course directed and choreographed by the legendary Michael Bennett. Here Broadway’s Tony-nominated Robert Longbottom gives the show his own visual flair, creates exciting, showy dance numbers, and insures some of the finest acting ever in a musical most noted for its song sequences.
A production is only as great as its performers, and here too Dreamgirls scores big. The Dreams (Syesha Mercado as Deena Jones, Adrienne Warren as Lorrell Robinson, and Margaret Hoffman as Michelle Morris) are stunning singer/actresses each one. The men in their lives (Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Curtis Taylor, Jr., Chester Gregory as James “Thunder” Early, Trevon Davis as C.C. White, and Milton Craig Nealy as Marty Madison) match them all the way. Particular attention should be paid to the complexity Shepherd brings to Curtis and the show-stopping pizzazz that Gregory gives Jimmy.
Then there’s newcomer Moya Angela, stepping into some very big shoes indeed as Dreamgirls star/victim/survivor Effie White. Jennifer Holliday won the Tony and Jennifer Hudson the Oscar for playing Effie, but trust me, you havenever seen or heard anyone sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” like Angela does. This Effie’s “method” performance is so deeply felt and so gut-wrenchingly real that any previous rendition seems mere vocal pyrotechnics by comparison. In fact, in scene after scene, Angela may well be the best Effie ever. (Patrice Covington, who performs Effie “at certain performances,” will have a near impossible act to follow.)
Movie fans will be delighted to hear that “Listen,” the Beyoncé (Knowles) hit written especially for the movie by Krieger, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, and Knowles, has been inserted into the tour as a show-stopping Act Two duet for Mercado and Angela.
The tour’s ensemble of triple threats (Felicia Boswell, Tallia Brinson, Ronald Duncan, Talitha Farrow, Brittney Griffin, James Harkness, Robert Hartwell, Eric Jackson, Chauncey Jenkins, Jared Joseph, Nikki Kimbrough, Brittany Lewis, Douglas Lyons, Kimberly Marable, Jarran Muse, Amaker Smith and Marc Spaulding) simply couldn’t be better, singing and showing off their dancing feet to perfection as they assume more guises and wigs than I could count.
Music director/conductor Sam Davis leads the big, brassy band which provides bang-up backup for the show’s fabulous vocal performances.
Interest in the Dreamgirls tour’s Costa Mesa stop is likely to be high indeed. A pair of CLO productions announced with some fanfare for last year never took place, leaving this tour as Southlanders’ only option to savor the magic and pizzazz that is Dreamgirls. Fortunately, this is one of the best touring productions you’re likely to see … ever. This is one show not to miss!
Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
April 21, 2010
Photos: Joan Marcus