Since its Broadway bow in 1981, Dreamgirls has been something of a juggernaut. In conception and in tone, this musical, which is tacitly (and not so tacitly depending on the lawyers) based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, comes at you with both barrels and never lets you go. Containing a rhythmically perfect score, Dreamgirls explores the business side of the music industry during the 1960's and 70's and the consequences fame has on ‘family'. Long before Clear Channel gained its monopoly of radio, pay for play (payola) was the way managers got their clients air time and Dreamgirls explores this exploitation.
Longtime friends Deena, Lorrell and Effie are the Dreamettes who are running late for a talent contest at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City. They catch the eye of Curtis Taylor, would-be talent agent by night and Cadillac salesman by day. Curtis teams the Dreamettes with James "Thunder" Early, who is a mix of James Brown, Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis, Jr., and stardom soon follows. The Dreamettes, thanks to Curtis and a little cash to the right people, begin getting gigs of their own. Politics of the bedroom dictate that Deena become the lead singer over boffo-belter Effie while Loreell is caught in the middle (literally) of a diva feud. Effie is forced out of the group and the collective showbiz family. Fame claims victim after victim until the women rise up, gain their own identity and become a ‘family' once more.
Dreamgirls, which won six Tony awards, five Drama Desks and two Oscars, contains book and lyrics by Tom Eyen with an soulful score by Henry Krieger. The music is true to the time periods, and contains amazing harmonies for both male and female voices. However, it is in the ballads that Dreamgirls rockets itself to one of the best musicals ever written for the female voice. Whoever secures the role of Effie sure has their work cut out, not only because of the lineage of performers who have played the role, but for the place in musical theater history these songs have attained.
Certain directors are perfect for certain material and with Marriott's new production of Dreamgirls perfection is found in director Marc Robin who is definitely in his element with this show. Robin, more than any other regular at the Marriott, knows how to direct an in the round show. For Dreamgirls, there is no set per-se. but risers and a turntable that get the job done as well as any proscenium stage production. This is one of those shows that is in Mr. Robin's blood and his passion shows in every aspect. From casting to choreography; to allowing the actors to find their own interpretation on otherwise theatrically precise characters, Mr. Robin and Dreamgirls is a marriage made in theater heaven
As stated earlier, playing Effie can be a daunting undertaking. The role was originally penned for Nell Carter, but Broadway history would dictate another diva emerge. I still remember sitting in Imperial Theatre and having Jennifer Holiday's voice literally shake the seats we were in and stop the show for what had to be a five minute standing ovation. For this production, Mr. Robin has recruited Raena White (take notice of that last name), who is also a revelation in the role. In this Dreamgirls, yes, she does justice to And I Am Tell You I'm Not Going, but, smartly and strategically, Ms. White's 11 O'clock number is I Am Changing, which not only does she put her own stamp on, but for my money, is the best interpretation ever staged. Ms. White plays quite an emotionally broken Effie from the get-go, very akin to Broadway veteran Lillias White who I saw play the role more than any other actress. It is through her powerful voice that Effie is allowed to express whatever pain is buried deep within her and when that opportunity is squelched, her pent up anguish explodes and Ms. White makes you believe the truth in her pain every second she is on stage.
Britney Coleman's Deena Jones has some lovely moments, especially in the second act when her character comes into her own. Rashidra Scott's stage presence and voice elevates the role of Lorrell to that of Deena and needs to be credited with much of the success of this production. Jimmy Early is also given great depth by Eric LaJuan Summers and had the audience eating out of his hand every time he steps on the stage. Bryon Glenn Willis' portrayal of Curtis is much more defined than is in the script and this smartly allowed the audience come to sympathize with him instead of despising him.
Whatever money may have been saved on sets was clearly given to the great Nancy Missimi for those magnificent gowns. The color pallet of the entire production was a spectrum of purples, reds, violets and indigos (expertly lit by Jesse Klug) and the costume fabrics allowed the colors to pop. Music director Doug Peck works expertly and symbiotically with Mr. Robin causing the transitions between vocals and drama to be seamless.
What was very interesting at opening night was the chatter of audience and colleagues who have never seen a staged production of Dreamgirls and instead, kept referencing the film version. After digesting this quandary a bit, Dreamgirls is a very difficult show to stage in every way and for that reason, it is not produced as often as one may think. So let us be thankful to the Marriott Lincolnshire and Marc Robin for bringing this gem back to where it belongs, on the stage, with the seats shaking at all the right moments thanks to a new generation of divas!
DREAMGIRLS plays through October 28, 2012 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire, IL.Wednesdays t 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.,Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.,Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays At 1 and 5 p.m.
Tickets range from $41- $49 ( a terrific value for theater of this quality- I see a few Jeff nominations on this one) and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 847-634-0299 or online at www.Ticketmaster.com Dinner theater packages are also available for as low as $55 per person with some great dining experiences. Seniors and students get $5 off on matinees and Sundays. For more information visit www.marriotttheatre.com