Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, May 15. Continues in rep until July 7
This production of Dreamgirls is going to be a big hit for the Arts Club. It’s great that the theatre company will be making some dough and that the talented cast and many in the audience will be enjoying themselves. But in a happier world, they’d be making money and having fun with better material.
Dreamgirls riffs on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. In the musical, an agent named Curtis, who is clearly based on the legendary Motown figure Berry Gordy, masterminds the rise to fame of a girl group called the Dreams (the Supremes). As part of his strategy for achieving mainstream success, Curtis makes the strongest singer, Effie (Florence Ballard), sing backup and he repositions the telegenic Deena (Diana Ross) as the lead.
In director Bill Millerd’s production, Aurianna Angelique delivers a knockout turn as Effie. Angelique possesses a big, agile voice: listening to her sing is like watching an aerialist fly through the air. And she hurls herself into the emotion of Effie’s songs, including “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which Effie sings after Curtis fires her.
There is a downside to Angelique’s approach: she ornaments her vocal lines so heavily that she sometimes risks losing the melody, and a stronger attempt at emotional containment would make “And I Am Telling You” more moving. But there’s no denying Angelique’s power and skill. In Act 2, her exquisite modulation accesses all of the yearning in “I Am Changing”, Effie’s comeback anthem.
As Curtis, Daren Herbert offers a lethal combination of sex and menace. You can see it in the steadiness of his gaze and in the contained power that makes the opening of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” the most erotic passage in the evening. The leashed masculinity in Valerie Easton’s choreography for this number contributes an enormous amount.
And with his crazy falsetto, electrified movement, sleazy sexuality, and essential tenderness, Hector Johnson makes soul singer Jimmy Thunder feel like the real deal.
The production values are also high. Ted Roberts’s set features four tall towers onto which images can be projected. And when those towers flip around, they contain banks of lights. Costumer Sheila White clothes Herbert in flattering teal and rust, and the Dreams’ sequined aqua dresses are stunners.
But some numbers, including the title song and “Family”, are schlock. And why does a show about Motown never sound like Motown? All that melisma, all of those bombastic American Idol crescendos: that ain’t it, kid.
And the book, which won a Tony, is crudely constructed. No characters or relationships are developed with any depth; Deena (Karen Holness) suddenly emerges as an important figure in Act 2, but we’ve barely met her in Act 1, so we have no emotional attachment to her. Librettist Tom Eyen leans heavily on clunky exposition. And the story runs on the notion that to achieve success, all you have to do is follow your dream. This is the Big Capitalist Lie: it glamorizes the American cult of individualism, blames those who struggle for simply not working and dreaming hard enough, and absolves us of responsibility for one another. In the real-life story of the Supremes, Florence Ballard, the Effie character, died an impoverished alcoholic. In Dreamgirls, bitter rivalries and betrayals miraculously resolve, Effie returns to stardom, and the story ends happily—but stupidly.
Dreamgirls is glossy and kinetic. But the stimulation it offers is more about distraction than depth.