Dreamgirls is the ultimate sister act

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In the world of Broadway musicals, Dreamgirls is the ultimate sister act—and that’s something Karen Holness knows a lot about.

As one of four sisters—including R&B singer Deborah Cox—she feels at home in an all-female world.

“My relationships with my sisters are paramount,” the Vancouver-based actor stresses, sitting with the Straight in the lounge of the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre, where the show is playing. She recalls a childhood staging song-and-dance shows at home with Cox. “I can’t imagine not having a sister. One summer a bunch of boy cousins came and invaded our house, and when they left we were just like, ‘Wheeew!’ ”

It’s just one of the reasons she’s so drawn to Dreamgirls, the sassy, glittering musical that follows a Motown trio loosely based on the Supremes. The threesome goes from small-time 1960s singers to superstars, forming and painfully breaking friendships along the way.

Composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen’s 1981 show raked in the Tonys when it debuted on Broadway, with its mix of glamorous costumes and killer Motown anthems. It was made into a 2006 movie starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé Knowles, and now the Arts Club’s Bill Millerd is helming a homegrown production here for the first time.

“I’ve been listening to the original cast recording since I was a baby girl in high school,” says Holness, an ultimate triple-threat performer who grew up in Hogtown. “There was nothing like that in Toronto: there was Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz, but nothing that spoke to our culture. So this show is really close to our hearts and we really want to do a great job with it.”

But performing her dream show isn’t necessarily easy for the star, whose remarkably diverse résumé includes dancing a feature role in the movie Chicago, playing Diane Broyles on TV’s sci-fi series Fringe, and starring as Mrs. Dolittle in the fourth and fifth of the Dr. Dolittle movies. She’s spent the last several years concentrating on film and TV, but she knows what it means to carry a large-scale musical: she sang almost every female role in Rent, the show that brought her to Vancouver about a decade ago, and she’s sung opposite Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But Dreamgirls may dig even deeper into her talent. The cast has to belt out its intense, soulful numbers for the full length of the show. For Holness (who plays Deena, the Diana Ross–style character) and fellow stars Aurianna Angelique and Starr Domingue, this has led to some rather bizarre behaviour to protect their voices.

“It’s about taking extra taking care of yourself,” the affable Holness says with a smile. “We all go to lunch and we’re texting each other so we don’t have to talk.”

The music numbers are all-consuming, and so are the costumes. In Dreamgirls, Holness gets to wear a parade of customized sparkling creations by designer Sheila White, from a purple-sequinned gown to her favourite, a floor-length cape completely lined with feathers. The costumes travel from classic 1960s looks through disco flares and Vegas glitz, with outsize wigs to match.

“It’s like this designer went into my head and said, ‘What are your most amazing dreams of fashion?’ ” Holness enthuses. As lead singer for the local band Jazz, Baby, she admits to having a number of blinged-out dresses in her own closet at home: “You gotta have a little something somethin’.”

Not surprisingly, the entire experience of singing, dancing, and donning drop-dead-gorgeous gowns has brought the girls of Dreamgirls close together. They’re a sister act off-stage and on—even if they can’t always talk over lunch.

Dreamgirls is at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until July 7.

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