Virginia Rep’s “Dreamgirls” is glitzy glamour without the guts
Powerhouse singing and raging spectacle are hardly in short supply in the bluntly entertaining production of Dreamgirls. Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s groundbreaking 1981 musical, loosely based on the career of the “Supremes,” opened Friday at the Virginia Repertory Theatre.
The entertainment is “blunt” primarily due to the difficulties on opening night of precision spectacular effects. From the over complicated, under rehearsed choreography to the manipulation of giant wobbly staircases, shaky giant panels and out of control stage elevators, this production, which focuses on such spectacle rather than drama, takes a hit.
Citizen theatre-goers may not notice these quirks. Anyone remotely fluent in theatre will.
Spectacular effects are, by definition, thrilling to behold (even when done right), yet they leave little room for subtler pleasures. Characterizations are eclipsed by clothes (ingeniously engineered quick-change outfits by costume designer Sarah Grady), and Joe Doran’s flashy, colorful lighting on Ron Keller’s 1960’s “mod” set (of shifting colored pulsating panels), establishes such a high speed limit that the story more or less whizzes by in outline form.
The action, which leaps from nightclub venues to recording studios, revolves almost exclusively around concert performance, and director Chase Kniffen’s direction takes its cues accordingly. This approach seeks to maximize pizazz, which crowds out other musical theater values, most important: emotion. The production would rather wow you than move you, and the only moisture around my eyes was a vicariously earned sweat.
Some actors had talent to overcome the fantasia surrounding them, many were trapped in its mire.
Dreamgirls focuses on a Supremes-like singing trio from high school to stardom. The story focuses on Effie, an overweight, overbearing lead singer who is replaced by Barbie girl glamour when a Svengali manager takes them to the big show.
Residents of downtown Richmond may have heard the sonic boom that nearly short-circuited a swath of the city when Desirée Roots delivered the first act finale, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — Effie White’s anthem of heartbreak denial that turned two Jennifers, Holliday and Hudson, into instant national treasures.
Ms. Roots has soul. She did the songs proud and if this were a concert she would receive five ridiculous stars from someone. Dreamgirls, however, for all its shortcomings, is still theatre and not cabaret. Roots, for all her musical talent, fails to connect to the drama leaving her contribution to the overall production with very little soul indeed.
The reasons for the deficit are complicated. First there is the concert-like presentation of the score, which disconnects the music from the drama every time a singer faces the audience. Such presentation effectively breaks the fourth wall as if the other three don’t exist.
Powerhouse singing does not, in of itself, make good theatre. The music must spring internally from the character’s life and be infused with the character’s personality and connect to the movement of the plot.
A good theatrical singer is a good actor who sings, not the other way around.
Most critical for the drama, neither Ms. Roots nor Mr. Kniffen have defined Effie realistically as a more middle aged woman.
Zuri Washington plays the Diana Ross character who replaces Effie as lead singer. The play infers that she is a lesser singer but a prettier girl to put out front (say it ain’t so Miss Diana Ross!) Ms. Washington’s performance is hampered by the neglect to spotlight her. There were few pizazz moments for her. We want her to rise from below stage, magnificent in sequins and jewels, to wow us with the marketing that has gone into her creation. We need her to give us much diva attitude.
Instead Ms. Washington stays safely in the sad confused and abused lane. Not the strongest choice.
Deena, to recap the plot, is the glamorous diva with the crossover voice who supplants soulful Effie as lead singer in the rising trio. Lorrell Robinson (Felicia Curry) is the other member of the group, the one who falls hard for James “Thunder” Early (D. Jerome Wells), the married James Brown-like dynamo who gives the girls their initial break by letting them sing back up for him.
Ms. Curry, so delicious in The Color Purple last year, proves that the wattage of her talent improves any role. Lorrell Robinson is usually overlooked amongst the constellation of Divas onstage, but Ms. Curry actually looks like she knows what she’s doing and doesn’t miss an opportunity to enhance her underdeveloped role into the major heartbreak of the evening.
The ups and downs and backstage rivalries of the Dreams (formerly known as the Dreamettes) fills Tom Eyen’s book with enough soap opera reversals for a year of daytime television. The cast of characters includes a record-mogul in training, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jared Solomon), who moves from Effie’s bed to Deena’s after giving the act an R&B-to-pop makeover, and Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Durron Tyre), who runs afoul of Curtis’ mercenary payola scam.
The male roles in this play are sorely underwritten and a little too stock. Each one of them serves as a catalyst to drive the life of a woman, leaving them short changed.
Jarrod Solomon succeeds in bringing truth to what could have been a cardboard character. Curtis is a cad, a bully, a con artist and an abuser of women. The script, lyrics and direction don’t give Mr. Solomon much help and yet he finds just enough to build upon.
Durron Tyre might have the best voice on stage but he has too few opportunities to shine. His character of C.C., Effie’s brother, is woefully underwritten. The Nerd in the Glasses who is a great but abused composer is another stock part from the Steve Urkel drawer.
D. Jerome Wells plays the James Brown character. Mr. Wells does a great James Brown impression. He has the moves. He is larger than life and way over the top. Most of that works for the character but at times it seems cartoony. Dramatically, he finds the petulant child within his character. But that’s where it ends.
Mr. Wells’ costumes brings me to the subject of Wigs. A word about his wig. Great James Brown wig, but it looked all wrong on Mr. Wells. Maybe it’s the fit, but when a wig looks like a wig the audience starts watching the wig and not the man.
This production is a massive wig show. Dozens of them. With so many wigs the production demanded a Wig Master for consistency and style sake. Many of the wigs were fine but some were horrendous. The 1970’s frizzy wigs were unflattering to all who wore them.
Query: why are the African American Musicals of our age mostly about women? Purlie, The Wiz, Dreamgirls, The Color Purple and others. Yes, there is the musical Raisin, Golden Boy and others that feature men, but those plays are not taken out much. Is the female African American experience more in need of musical-comedy bolstering?
I’m also curious about these musicals being directed by male Caucasians. This is the second year in a row Chase Kniffen has staged an African American musical experience.
This is Richmond, I don’t want hate mail. But where are our Female African American Musical Theatre Directors?
I know the business reasons why critics have to go to opening nights. Theoretically it’s the producer’s responsibility to bring a show to opening night-ready. Dreamgirls had a hard opening. It certainly will be a smoother production in subsequent weeks. The actors won’t be so pumped with adrenaline.
The dancers will be out of their heads. The stage crew can get their act together. After a show settles down, you can judge it more fairly.
Let me confess that I’ve been waiting for quite some time for a fresh take on Dreamgirls, a musical that bowled me over early in my theatergoing life. Michael Bennett’s original staging introduced a high contemporary standard of shiver-inducing theatricality. I didn’t notice the weak book as much then.
Virginia Repertory Company’s Dreamgirls isn’t the production I’ve been fantasizing about. I await the time when a grittier, more authentic version comes along.
Dreamgirls at VA rep runs now through August 7th at the November Theatre. You can scoop tickets here.
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