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DREAMGIRLS

DREAMGIRLS

Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyer
Music by Henry Krieger

Dallas Theater Center

Director- Joel Ferrell
Choreographer- Rickey Tripp
Assistant Choreographer- Antuan Raimone
Music Director/Conductor- Michael O. Mitchell
Music Contractor- Debbie Brooks
Set Designer- Bob Lavallee
Assistant Set Designer- Michelle Harvey
Costume Designer- Karen Perry
Assistant Costume Designer- Betty Fenner Davis
Lighting Designer- Lap Chi Chu
Sound Designer- Aria Music Design
Associate Sound Designer- Christopher LaPorte
Wig Designer- J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager-Megan Winters

CAST
Alexis Sims as Deena Jones
Marisha Wallace as Effie White
Kristen Bond as Lorrell
Derrick Davis as Curtis Taylor Jr.
Traci Elaine Lee as Michelle
Eric Lajuan Summers as James Thunder Early
Clinton Greenspan as C.C. White
Hassan El-Amin as Marty Madison

Ensemble: Christopher Figaro Jackson, Joshua Keith, Walter Lee, Alex Organ, Willie Smith III, Jay Staten, Jeremy Davis, Gabriel Lawson, Micah Ndiba, Tiana Kaye Johnson, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Ayanna Edwards and Gabrielle Reyes.

Photos by Karen Almond


Reviewed Performance: 6/17/2016

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

In 1982 when I walked into the Imperial Theater in New York to see this new Broadway musical titled Dreamgirls it was still in its first year of running. This was before the Tony nominations were even announced. My only knowledge of the musical was that it was based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. As a faithful fan of Miss Ross (we never say “Diana”, its Miss Ross!) and that legendary Motown girl group, I had to see it. I was not prepared for what I was about to witness. It should be noted the night before I had just seen Tommy Tune’s epic Nine the musical which had opened that same season.

For musical theater buffs there are several books written about the furious, ugly battle between Michael Bennett (Director/Choreographer of Dreamgirls) and Tommy Tune who not only directed and choreographed Nine, but he was in fact Bennett’s protégée. Bennett cast Tune years prior in one his first Broadway musicals titled Seesaw, which earned Tune his first Tony. Now years later they were both battling it out for audiences, critical acclaim, and awards with the musicals they helmed.

Bennett was struggling artistically to regain success on the great white way. After his masterpiece creation of A Chorus Line, he could not find another project that would help him achieve that same artistic and financial success as A Chorus line. Thus when Dreamgirls landed on his desk, he knew he found his next big hit.

It was Bennett and scenic designer Robin Wagner’s combined idea of the concept of having four silver chromed towers to glide, shift, and transform into the many scenes and locations the piece took place in. This allowed for the pace and transitions to work seamlessly on stage.

The entire original cast was on that evening. So when it came to that now infamous ballad, “And I am Telling You”, words escape me. Never in my life had I seen such a gut splitting, raw, hungry, roaring performance that exploded out of Jennifer Holliday. I had tears in my eyes and like the rest of the audience, we were on our feet (already!), we kept screaming and applauding throughout her song. When has that happened before in theater? When Holliday got to the last lyrics, the audience screamed, applauded, and cheered so loud (including myself) my ear drums popped. Months later Holliday won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. I am one of those lucky individuals who can say “I saw Jennifer Holliday in the original production of Dreamgirls.”

Holliday in fact was not the first choice to portray Effie. In a strange déjà vu, Holliday (like Effie White) had a turbulent, complex, and often difficult journey from the workshop to Broadway. The project was originally built around Nell Carter. After the lackluster response from the workshop, Carter departed the show to star in the TV comedy Gimme A Break. Thus Holliday took over the role, however she was extremely dissatisfied that her character was so weakly written. Originally the audience learned at the beginning of Act Two that Effie died, so Holliday left the project. Thus Bennett brought in Cheryl Gaynes and Phillis Hyman to alternate in the role. After two more unsatisfactory workshops a third was done with a then unknown Jennifer Lewis as Effie. Still the production had severe book and score problems, and everyone on the production team knew they needed Holliday back. So she returned only to find that the role was watered down even more and that the role of Deena Jones (portrayed by Shirley Lee Ralph) had been drastically altered to be the main focus. Holliday once again walked out of the workshop. Bennett called and begged her to return and promised her that the role would be completely restructured and in fact would be prominently featured in Act Two. She returned and the rest is history.

Dreamgirls was nominated for 13 Tony award nominations, Tommy Tune’s Nine earned 12 Tony nods. On the big night, Bennett had to sit there to see his former student, the one he made into a star take home the Tony for Best Director and watch Nine win over Dreamgirls for Best Musical. But Bennett had the last laugh as Nine ran for 729 performances, while Dreamgirls would last on Broadway for 1,521 performances.

In later productions I would get to see future Tony winner Lillias White, Sharon Brown, Roz White, and just in its recent 2009 Tour Moya Angela all tackle the role of Effie. They all did extraordinary work. But they never quite matched the level of Holliday’s legendary performance. I would though see Holliday again in the role in a 2007 national tour, and got to meet her personally afterwards. She by then had lost a lot of weight, so they had to pad her costumes.

The 2006 film version starred Beyoncé and Eddie Murphy. For us American Idol fans, we were drooling with anticipation to see Jennifer Hudson handle the role of Effie. When Hudson did “And I am Telling You” in the film, the movie audience broke into obstreperous applause-remember, we were at a film! I whispered to my friend, “That will earn her an Oscar and she will win”, and Hudson did! The film version is one of my all-time favorite stage musicals turned into movies. In my personal opinion Hudson is the only female I have seen that equaled Holliday’s vocal force.

Now the Dallas Theater Center have mounted their own production of Dreamgirls, which opened Friday to a very excited, pumped up audience.

In the last 4-5 years, DTC has brought some of the best new musicals to its stage, such as Fly By Night, Giant, and Give It Up (later reaching Broadway as Lysistrata Jones). Their revival of Tommy was another smash. But then came Les Miserables. So much hype was out in the media of how revolutionary and bold this new “version” would be. Some critics fell over themselves praising it. I did not and gave the musical a scathing review.

Thus I was a bit cautious to see how DTC would bring one of my all-time favorite musicals to life on stage. With a huge sigh of relief DTC has regained their artistic glory and finesse in mounting a spectacular and lavish production that could easily be transferred intact to Broadway right now!

If I had to be nit-picky, I was disappointed they didn’t include the song “Listen” from the motion picture. The 2009 revival (that came through Dallas Summer Musicals) put the song in Act Two for both Deena and Effie to sing, with the lyrics altered to fit the scene. It was a powerful duet and cemented the loss friendship and anger between them both. In DTC’s defense, the rights to add that song may not have been available to use.

As homage to Robin Wagner’s original set creation of chrome towers, Bob Lavallee’s set design had four massive slick Onyx panels that moved and slid and its edges had lighting units. Center was a large, round stage, and within its center it had a circular piece that would rise up from the stage! Underneath this moveable circled set piece he had either shiny black fabric, or spangling silver sequin palettes, and even a disco ball! Various pieces of furniture, make up tables, etc. were brought in throughout the night. He brought down from the rafters sparkling Plexiglas squares, a massive chandelier, white curtains, and so on. The huge center unit had the orchestra, which would slide downstage in several scenes.

Beyond the main set were two mini step units (I was seated directly in front of one). I understand their purpose, they were used to add levels and allowed various characters to observe the scene on center stage. But I felt they were unnecessary and actually got in the way. When cast members stood on them, they blocked your view. Also because our legs were so close to these step units, my guest and I had our knees slammed by a suitcase that a Dreamette was bringing on stage at the beginning of Act Two. Nonetheless, Lavallee’s scenic design is smashing, and wait till you see what he has created for the finale!

Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design matched up perfectly with Lavallee’s sets. Because the center stage was devoid of much set, he doused the stage with gobs of color, gobos, piercing shards of specific lighting, and constant movement. You could see when actors moved from one side to another, the lighting magically followed them in sync. So many of the musical numbers had sublime lighting creations, no duplicating of lighting patterns done here. The lighting design for the number, “I Am Changing” is riveting! Every single musical number had its own unique design of light, color, and movement!

The costumes were designed by Karen Perry, and it is a plethora of sequins, rhinestones, beads, and feathers! The costumes are just out of this world! Sitting so close allowed me to really take in the detail and craftsmanship of the execution within her costumes. The beading on several gowns was just so exquisite. She very wisely had the Dreamettes in simple pale, almost colorless costumes at the beginning that looked a bit unfinished. But Effie does state that the dresses were made by Deena’s mother and they do nothing for her figure-then it all made sense. That is a true costume designer listening to the book and lyrics. Her creations for the title number are silver and grey gowns beaded for days. There is a beautiful, touching moment-and one I’ve never seen in any other Dreamgirls production that Perry has created for the DTC version. She had the Dreams sing their final number of the night in different designed gowns, but also grey and beaded. It was subtext of reminding the audience how these women went from their breakout performance to where they are now. Wait till you see what Perry designed for the numbers “Heavy” and the Act Two opening….OMIGOD! You just need to see it, cause it will BLOW YOU AWAY! Finally I was so, so thrilled that Perry kept the iconic costume moment in “I Am Changing”. From the original version to the various tours I’ve seen, that moment is there, and Perry did not disappoint. Let’s just say the audience Friday night roared and cheered with approval. Ms. Perry’s creation of costumes for this musical deserves a Tony Award. Watch your back William Ivey Long!

A special round of applause must also go to Wig Designer J. Jared Janas. The musical goes through various decades, not only in time, but also the change in music genres. Jana’s wigs were in complete sync in style to fit that year or style of music. I think Miss Ross would even approve! The girls went from bouffants, to bee hives, to disco themed flowing wigs. But he also wigged the men, which normally is never done. This was a stroke of brilliance! The various principal men had wigs that matched the years, from pompadours to afros. All the wigs looked natural and authentic; this was outstanding work by Mr. Janas.

What I mostly admired from Joel Ferrell’s direction was his blocking and staging. His visual subtext with his direction aided to give more emotional strength to many scenes. While there was a scene occurring down center stage, he had a central character observe this far upstage, but always blocked at an angle. For example the scene held at a national democratic fundraiser. As James “Thunder” Early goes “desperate” to earn attention from the audience, Deena and Lorrell both express their pain of their current relationships with their men in the wings, while downstage CC White and Curtis battle it out over music and the paths of everyone’s careers. Ferrell’s staging works beautifully for that scene.

Another was right after the press conference on the Dreams opening night, Curtis sings his love and purpose to make Deena a star, while far upstage (again at an angle) Effie watches her man, her best friend, and her chance at a real career all disintegrate before her eyes. Finally I thought it was a genius decision to change the staging and blocking for the end of Act One. After Effie sings that famous ballad, normally the makeup table set she is on slides upstage and the Dreams walk right in front of her in glittery gowns as Effie fades away. Ferrell instead has the Dreams way up stage center, facing the back wall as though they are in front of an audience. While dead center down stage is Effie (Marisha Wallace) crumpled on the floor, sobbing over the loss of her man and career. It is a haunting, new approach to that final scene. This and other scenes contained solid staging and blocking that Ferrell created. He also keeps everything moving, never allowing the pace to slow down. Scenery, fast costume changes, etc. all transform within brisk seconds. Ferrell’s direction is to be greatly appreciated here.

Rickey Tripp’s choreography is sensationally exhilarating and executed by a first rate ensemble that number after number the cast was rewarded with boisterous applause. It is obvious Tripp did his homework on the various periods and styles of dance as we soar through the years. From the 60s to the Disco 70s, his choreography is a scene stealing element on its own. When I saw the original Broadway production, Act II opened as a medley. But when the 1983 tour went out, it was changed into a lavish opening of the Dreams on their current tour coming home to New York. The trio is dressed to the nines in a sea of dancers, and a massive staircase behind them which then walk down from. The 2009 national tour (the one that stopped at DSM) changed the Act Two opener once more. This time a new song titled "What Love Can Do" was created. DTC uses the 1983 Tour version (without a staircase). Tripp’s choreography used the dancers in a kaleidoscope of dazzling choreography, while costume designer Karen Perry created a bountiful array of rapid costume changes for the Dreams in this same number. This resulted in a show stopping number to say the least! Tripp’s choreography is standing ovation worthy!

DTC’s cast of Dreamgirls is an unrivaled company with not a lackluster performance to be seen on that stage, from ensemble to principals.

The ensemble brings to flawless life Tripp’s choreography. They were all unified and in sync, not a misstep seen all evening long. Several numbers required some truly athletic execution, and the ensemble did not disappoint! Vocally they sang with soulful harmonies. They had to portray a never ending stream of characters, and they all did so with great commitment and energy.

Within the ensemble there was some scene stealing cameos: Alex Organ nailed the Pat Boone, all American rendition of “Cadillac Car” (which was stolen from James “Thunder” Early’s soul filled version). Organ dressed in a blush pink sweater, sipping a coke, hair slicked, he stripped away any hint of soul, and turned the number into a vanilla ballad, it was hilarious! Jeremy Davis is jovial as Tiny Joe Dixon. He needed no dialogue. Just a great swagger in his walk, and dressed in a dark purple suit with a sprinkle of rhinestones, topped off with a cowboy hat! Finally Jay Staten is hysterical as one of the stylists in the Vogue photo shoot.

Within the ensemble there was some scene stealing cameos: Alex Organ nailed the Pat Boone, all American rendition of “Cadillac Car” (which was stolen from James “Thunder” Early’s soul filled version). Organ dressed in a blush pink sweater, sipping a coke, hair slicked, he stripped away any hint of soul, and turned the number into a vanilla ballad, it was hilarious! Jeremy Davis is jovial as Tiny Joe Dixon. He needed no dialogue. Just a great swagger in his walk, and dressed in a dark purple suit with a sprinkle of rhinestones, topped off with a cowboy hat! Finally Jay Staten is hysterical as one of the stylists in the Vogue photo shoot.

There was exceptional work provided by Clinton Greenspan as C.C. White; Hassan El-Amin as Marty Madison; and Traci Elaine Lee as Michelle Morris. All three brought to the table a delectable feast of artists displaying their craft to robust life in acting and singing.

Derrick Davis portrays Curtis Taylor, Jr (AKA Barry Gordy). Davis is a very tall, handsome, and extremely masculine man. His strong facial features and demeanor actually aide him in giving the character a fresh new approach and aura. He can be loving and caring, but only in brief seconds, for him it’s all about business, making his singers into big stars, and do anything to get to the top, no matter who he had to step on to get there. Davis has a booming, commanding speaking voice matched with his baritone vocals. It was really interesting to see how he treated Effie in comparison to Deena. He loved both women, but it was very different, and Davis shows the audience how. In the climatic Act One finale, the way he decimates and destroys Effie is riveting and so real it makes you uneasy in your seat. You almost want to run on stage and punch the man, that’s how much Davis is in the moment! When he sings in Act Two “When I First Saw You” to Deena, his interpretation of the lyrics and subtext is nothing like what I’ve seen in other actors who portray that role do. His hidden motives actually pour out from his subtext into the lyrics. It is fresh and original, and even bone chilling to watch unfold. Davis is remarkable in the role.

The scene stealer of the cast was easily Eric Lajuan Summers as James “Thunder” Early, the character who is molded around James Brown with a dash of Little Richard. Summers slithered and oozed all around that stage with sensual erotic overtones. James “Thunder” Early loves women, and Summers displays this not only to the women on stage, but those in the audience as well! He purrs and turns his women into melting butter on his sizzling skillet of sensuality. Summers bounces around the stage with high wattage energy and a magnetic stage presence. His comedic timing and delivery was side splitting hilarious while his ad-libs had me laughing loudly. Vocally he had a raspy, sexy tenor voice that made his musical numbers enthralling and intoxicating. But Summers also shows his dramatic talents in Act Two when his career unravels and crumbles before him. The staging for that final moment is quite dramatic. Summers work as James “Thunder” Early is a performance you will immensely regret if you do not see him in this role!

Kristen Bond portrays Lorrell, the quiet girl of the trio. She is the “Mary Wilson” of the Dreams. When I saw Loretta Divine in the original, I fell in love with her. For the film version it was Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose who portrayed her. I was greatly disappointed that in the film Rose was not able to do Lorrell’s big solo, “Aint No Party”. In DTC’s version, Ms. Bond had the audience howling in laughter with her unforgettable comedic delivery and timing. The girl knows how to land a joke and punchline! Combine that with her facial expressions and you are laughing non-stop as Lorrell throws out some zingers that were comedic touchdowns! What I found so fascinating was how much Bond fashioned her characterization as if she was channeling Mary Wilson. Wilson wrote a great autobiography in 1986 titled Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme (which I have and autographed by Ms. Wilson). Now I don’t know if Bond read the book, but she wisely brought out Wilson’s voice within her performance. Not vocally, but how Lorrell/Wilson felt during all those backstage battles. Bond has a golden set of soul filled vocal pipes that filled the theater. Her connection to Summers (James “Thunder” Early) was stage magic perfection. Bond displayed honestly a girl becoming a woman in love. But Bond really takes the audience into her pain in that dramatic scene with Early in Act Two. She is INCREDIBLE in this musical!

Alexis Sims (as Deena Jones AKA Diana Ross) is physically one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the Wyly Theatre stage. What is even more amazing is how she physically transforms from a shy girl into a superstar all within her acting craft. Oh sure the costumes, wigs, and makeup help- but it is her acting choices, facial expressions, and subtext that makes her performance a major highlight of the entire production. Because of where I was seated I was able to observe her subtext waft across the stage lights. An example of this is when Sims (Deena Jones) is sitting at the make-up table when the girls learn they are not only to become a solo act, but Curtis is making Deena the lead. This happened with the Supremes as well in real life. Motown founder Barry Gordy made Diana Ross (already his lover by then) as the lead singer, pushing Florence Ballard (AKA Effie White) and Mary Wilson (AKA Lorrell) as back up. But Ballard had the voice. So on the DTC stage I (along with those sitting on that side) I observed Sims keep her soft eyes down, embarrassed and scared. Sims displayed such touching honesty in that her best friend was being pushed out of the lead and she was replacing her. Another example is in Act Two when Sims/Deena hears what Curtis has done to destroy Effie’s comeback. As Curtis sings and tries to explain his reasons, again thanks to that perfect seat, I was able to see Sims body and facial expressions allow the subtext ebb from her as a woman who has discovered that the man she loved and married did these disgusting things to her best friend. Sims has a dynamic, splendid singing voice that made each of her musical numbers become theatrical magic all evening long.

I saw last year on Broadway Marisha Wallace in the original production of the rip roaring musical Something Rotten! Even though she was in the ensemble, she has some wickedly funny scene stealing moments. Now she is here in Dallas tackling what has to be one of the hardest roles in musical theater for a woman, Effie White. To know that those people in the dark have heard and seen Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson’s performances, or at the very least has heard these two women sing THAT song. Well that’s a lot of pressure on anyone’s shoulders.

Wallace adds more layers of laughter and sass for Effie than what I’ve seen in past interpretations from other actresses. She goes for the laughs and has the audience guffawing. But when it comes time for the character to enter the darker, more dramatic overtones and conflicts, Wallace does not back away from that whatsoever. She attacks them like a caged lioness. I know this sounds repetitive, but once again thanks to my assigned seat, Wallace sat at the makeup table that was right in front of me. This was for the scene where Effie discovers she has been replaced and also is losing her man. I was up close to savor and take in Wallace’s facial expressions and subtext as the vultures behind her begin to shred away her soul. Watching Wallace slowly emerge from her fog of shock and begins to implode on her so called “family” made the hairs on my arms stand right up!

Wallace attacked that 11:00 O’clock number, “And I Am Telling You” with so much emotion and dramatic intensity, it was just so raw, heart breaking, and honest to observe. But unfortunately she did struggle vocally with the song. Several numbers before this song, Wallace had a tendency to have this growl within her vocals. I wonder if this caused her vocal issues as the evening progressed. She just could not reach those high, massive vocal notes with the full volume that the number is known for. You could sense and feel the audience rooting for her to get to those high notes, but alas she could not. Now don’t get me wrong, she did a phenomenal job with the number, it was a still a show stopper. But you could tell the audience wanted that moment we’ve all come to know from that song. However, what I did find so incredible was her acting craft and choices for that number. She focused on the lyrics and she slashed opened her heart and soul on the destruction of her career and life. So to see her fall to the ground in a fetal position, a soft light glowing above her, all the while the “new” Dreams are upstage singing. Well that will put a lump in your throat!

But then something incredible happened in Act Two. Wallace sang the second of the three massive power ballads assigned to the role, and that was “I Am Changing”. Wallace softly began this famous ballad slowly, softly. Then like a dragon woken up from a deep slumber, she begins to soar vocally, belting with incredible strength. She easily glided into the key changes and crescendos with no problem. It was so marvelous and unbelievable, that the audience went berserk with vociferous shrieking, cheers, and applause! Several in the audience even stood up when she completed the number! The exact same thing happened for the third power ballad, “One Night Only”. She brought the house down with her astonishing vocals for that number!

For the finale when Effie (Wallace) comes out, she is costumed in a luxurious satin grey gown adorned with rhinestones. She looks every inch the star Effie is now. In a very touching moment, Deena (Alexis Sims) who normally sings the lead vocals of “Dreamgirls”, instead softly says “Effie” and acknowledges her to take center stage to start the song. Effie (Wallace) looks like she is about to break down in tears as she begins to sing the number that made them all stars. Wallace is indeed the tour de force star of this production of Dreamgirls and you will remember her performance for years to come.

Dallas Theater Center has mounted a musical that will be a major sell out and fast! It was already packed to the rafters at the opening night performance. DTC has one HELL of a monster hit on their hands!!! You wanna talk about the “must see musical of the season”….suffice to say this is the one that everyone will be talking about!

DREAMGIRLS
Dallas Theater Center
Running through July 24, 2016

Performed at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre • 2400 Flora Street in the AT&T Performing Arts Center For ticket info, prices, show dates and times call 214-880-0202 or go online at:
http://www.dallastheatercenter.org/buy_tickets.php
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