I love it when I finally get the chance to see a show that I've heard about, but have never seen produced, especially when it's one by someone as important and influential as the late Michael Bennett. "Dreamgirls", a look at a 60's girl-group very much like the Supremes, was his final show, and it opened to mixed reviews but considerable commercial success, especially after winning half a dozen Tonys. Because of it's talent demands, and the high cost of its elaborate physical production, it isn't a show you'll ever see on community theatre or middling regional theatre schedules. Even Seattle's 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company, the premiere producer of big scale musicals in the Northwest, needed to enlist Sacramento's California Musical Theatre and the American Musical Theatre of San Jose in order to marshal the necessary resources.
With a cast headed by the dynamic Frenchie Davis, and an ensemble drawn from New York, Los Angeles, San Jose and Sacramento, a design team featuring sets by Robin Wagner, lighting by Tom Sturge and recreations of the original Theoni V. Aldridge Broadway costumes, Director Mark S. Hoebee and Choreographer Brenda Braxton had plenty of talent to work with. The happy result is one of the brightest, most exciting and genuinely impressive Seattle productions in recent memory. Whether the show itself is a complete success remains an issue of spirited debate, but here it's presented with finish, vigor, passion and pizzazz.
The story is centered on the character of Effie White, whose star-talent is relegated to singing backup, then being dropped from the group entirely when her look doesn't fit the commercial concept. While they reunite in the finale, to provide the semblance of a happy ending, the show is less a behind-the-music expose than it's a parable of the whole grand, gaudy, bullshit and dazzle, triumph and heartbreak life of the stage. Every character in the show feels like some element of Michael Bennett, and it is that personal quality, that intimate exposure in flamboyant costume, that makes it all rise above being simply a rags-to-riches cliche. Frenchie Davis has a big, imposing voice and a lot of drama. Her well-known backstory, as a bright talent on the much-exposed "American Idol", and her subsequent disqualification as a result of a previous over-exposure in some candid photographs, gives her a particular affiliation with this role. Much more importantly, she has the kind of presence that makes her nobody's second choice, and a vulnerability that mixes with pride into a kind of survivor's grace. Her rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" was both the musical and dramatic highlight of the show. As a working mother and show-biz has-been in the second act, she made "One Night Only" both a declaration of her independence and a plea for acknowledgement. Only in the end, when she rejoins the Dreams, was she something less than fully dynamic, and I think that's a problem with the show's construction, not with her performance.
As solid as Frenchie Davis' performance was, an impressive star in the central role is the least of the casting difficulties in doing "Dreamgirls". Fortunately, all three of the young women who made up the singing group, The Dreams (Ramona Keller, LaVon D. Fisher, and especially Angela Robinson) were gorgeous and terrific, every bit believable as a pop music sensation. Ms. Robinson makes the familiar story of Diana Ross seem fresh and touching, convincingly creating a mega-star trapped in adulation and frustration. In the key role of Curtis, the manager, David Jennings is a powerful actor who commands the stage with his charm and authority, while neatly drawing a portrait of a man who acquires enough that he becomes a prisoner of his fear of losing it all. James Thunder Early is an R&B headliner who first hires the girls as his backup singers, and whose own rise and fall parallels Effie's. He only has to be exciting, wildly theatrical and sympathetically human. Harrison White accomplishes all that, and when he finds his first big hit, "Steppin' To the Bad Side", we see not only the birth of a star, but the start of a great style of popular music. His betrayal and eventual irrelevance is excruciating.
Nearly everything about the technical production of this show is first-rate, from the glorious costume fantasies to the brilliant engineering of the sets, so integral to maintaining Bennett's seamless flow of action through music. The Musical Direction of Marc Falcone was excellent, although the sound from where I sat was often a bit shrill and cutting. I spoke with friends in other parts of the theatre and they didn't have the same problem, so I assume it's another example of the notorious difficulty of tuning the sound in that house. It was my only quibble with the physical production. There is so much that's truly remarkable in this show, and even more that's admirable in this mounting.
I still feel that the resolution isn't entirely earned, and that leaves the show feeling a bit too contrived. But along the way we encounter so much great musical theatre writing, so much pure showmanship, and such a rich variety of great music that it's all much more satisfying than one expects. I doubt I'll see another production of "Dreamgirls" for some time to come, and I feel privileged and delighted to have seen it done by so much great talent, in such a rich and abundant presentation.
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