November 25, 2009

"Dreamgirls" Remains an Audience Favorite

Audiences at the Apollo are almost as famous as the legendary Harlem theater itself. They have helped launch the careers of musicians from Ella Fitzgerald (who won the Apollo’s celebrated amateurs contest in 1934) to Jimi Hendrix (who took home the same honor in 1964). They pride themselves for this role in making dreams come true and so they are notoriously outspoken about what they do and don’t like.  They were cheering even before the curtain went up the night my sister Joanne, her friend Diane and I went to the new revival of Dreamgirls that is kicking off a national tour with a five week stop at the Apollo.

I was excited too.  I’m a longtime Dreamgirls fan.  I was dazzled by it when I saw the original production that opened back in 1981. Tom Eyen’s book about the rise of a girl group similar to The Supremes is behind-the-music melodrama at its most delicious. And Henry Krieger perfectly captures the dynamism of the soul music that formed the soundtrack of my teen years.  The performances—from Jennifer Holliday’s star-making turn as Effie, the most talented of the trio who is cast aside because she isn’t glamorous enough,  to Cleavant Derricks’ high-powered homage to James Brown as the irrepressible R&B pioneer James Thunder Early, whose style is too emotionally raw to crossover into the mainstream—were phenomenal. But the real standout was Michael Bennett’s cinematic direction—with scenes dissolving into one another and jump cutting between perspectives just the way they do in the movies only more magically because Bennett didn’t rely on cameras or special effects.  

I liked the 2006 movie that earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar for her portrayal of Effie. But for me, Dreamgirls belongs on a stage and I was eager to see it on the stage of the Apollo, where some of the key moments in the show are set.  And I’m happy to say that it looks fine there.  Not great.  But good enough. 

Bennett’s staging is as integral to Dreamgirls as Jerome Robbins’ dances are to West Side Story and Robert Longbottom, who directed and choreographed the revival, is smart enough to know that and to hew close to the original.  He even got Robin Wagner, who created the original sets, to do the new ones, updated with some smart video projections.  Longbottom didn’t tap Theoni Aldredge to do the costumes this time around but William Ivey Long was clearly inspired by Aldredge’s work and, as one theatergoer who spotted him at the back of the theater after the show told him, Long’s costumes—simultaneously sumptuous and witty—were the stars of the current production. They were topped only by the usually unacknowledged dressers, who managed amazing changes.

I don’t say any of this as a slap at the current cast.  They’re hardworking and, buoyed, by the material, they do just fine.  Still, there is a callow quality to this production and at times, it comes across as the work of a very bright high school drama club. Moya Angela has the requisite soulful sound for Effie but she clearly feels the burden of her predecessors' success in the role, particularly in the show’s signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”  Her rendition did the job and brought the house down but I thought I detected her sighing with relief once the song was done. 

The audience also loved Chester Gregory in the James Thunder Early role.  Gregory’s a good singer, an incredibly agile dancer and a do-anything-for-a-laugh entertainer. But he was a bit cartoonish at times and too willing to trade the pathos that deepens the character for easy laughs. Chaz Lamar Shepherd does even less well as the ambitious manager who drives the Dreams, as the girl group is called, to success, playing him largely as a one-note villain.  Syesha Mercado, yet another “American Idol” finalist, is pretty but little more as the Diana Ross-character. Adrienne Warren does add some true grit to her character as the third Dream but eventually succumbs to power ballad fever in her big number “Ain’t No Party.”

And yet, I am telling you that I had a good time. So did most of the critics, even while finding some of the very same faults with the production as I did.  My fellow blogger  Parabasis was so stunned by this response that he’s accused everyone of grading the production on a curve (click here to read his review of the reviews.)  Maybe.  But try telling that to the audience at the Apollo.

No comments: