‘DREAMGIRLS’: Amber Riley in her Olivier-winning role. Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

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DREAMGIRLS
Book & lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Original direction & choreography by Michael Bennett
Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Savoy Theatre
Savoy Court, Strand
London, WC2R 0ET, United Kingdom
0844 871 7615, http://www.dreamgirlswestend.com/

 

By David NouNou

In 1981, Michael Bennett brilliantly revitalized Broadway with a new musical sound and look that New York audiences haven’t seen before. It was a musical based on the top female singing group “The Supremes,” their rise to superstardom to their eventual breakup. They were part of the Motown family. Mr. Bennett conceived, directed, choreographed, chose his cast of virtual unknowns, and had his hand in the designs and the entire look of the show. It was his show.

He deliberately cast unknowns to make the show a story-motivated musical rather than a star-driven show. He cast Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones, Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson, and Jennifer Holliday as Effie White. The three ladies make their separate entrances with no fanfare, because you only get to know them as three young women who want to be a singing group and call themselves The Dreamettes. He also made the musical so seamless and continuous that there was no room for applause after any song or number. Not until near the end of Act I, where Effie has been replaced by another singer, deserted by her group, manager/boyfriend Curtis, and her brother and songwriter, C.C. White. Everyone has abandoned Effie for being a diva, unprofessional and difficult, always late and always making excuses for something or other. She is left all alone onstage staring into her make-up mirror in fear and despair and starts what has now become a Broadway anthem, “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going.” By the end of the song when the light starts dimming on Effie, her makeup table is being pulled back upstage and she lets out her final painful gasp, does the audience finally get their release and give Ms. Holliday and the show a long show-stopping standing ovation that was a theatrical moment filled with goosebumps.

Casey Nicholaw is now at the helm of directing and choreographing the West End revival of Dreamgirls. Mr. Nicholaw is a brilliant director and choreographer of musical “comedy.” After all, he has given us The Book Of Mormon, Aladdin, Spamalot and one of my favorite musicals of all time which hasn’t reached London yet, Something Rotten (which should have won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Score, and Director). Mr. Nicholaw loves the glitz, glamour, and hoopla of a musical comedy. Like Mr. Bennett, he also started as a performer on the Broadway stage and triumphed up the ladder of being both director and choreographer. Unlike Mr. Bennett, he hasn’t gotten the handle on musical “drama.”

This version isn’t as seamless and continuous as its predecessor. This revival is filled with gaps where the audience is now familiar with the score and will automatically clap at the end of each song. Mr. Nicholaw has eliminated all the tension that Mr. Bennett created. The show is still intact, but the focus of Act I has shifted from the rise of the trio to centering on Effie and her problems as well as James Thunder Early (Adam J. Bernard), because he is an automatic audience-pleaser. All the other characters become sub marginal. You notice this right from the beginning when the girls make their entrances, when Deena (Liisa LaFontaine) and Lorrell (Asmeret Ghebremichael) enter, nothing. When Effie enters, wild applause and that’s because it is Amber Riley of “Glee” fame and the winner of the mirror ball on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Of course, when the number “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going” arrives near the end of Act I, yes Effie has been abandoned by everyone and is alone on stage, but she is no longer singing to herself in front of her makeup mirror but is center stage in a sequined blue cocktail dress, not singing out of fear and despair but what seems as one of two finalists on “American Idol,” singing her heart out to be the winner. In fairness to Ms. Riley, she does a great job with the song, not as Effie but Ms. Riley in an audition for Dreamgirls.

Even in Act II, when Deena is given her solo number to declare her independence from her husband/slimy manager, Curtis Taylor (Joe Aaron Reid), “Listen,” the Beyoncé song from the movie, it is now no longer a solo of independence for Deena but as a duet with Effie and that makes no sense. Mr. Nicholaw taketh from Deena Jones and giveth to Effie White. For most Brits and Europeans, they would not be such sticklers about these choices, but to American purists of the show, this would be intolerable.

The performances by Liisi La Fontaine, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Adam J. Bernard, and Joe Aaron Reid are all perfect in their roles. Joshua Liburd is totally miscast and too young as C.C. White, the in-house songwriter. As for Amber Riley, she has a great voice, a real musical talent, but she is not in “Glee” anymore, she has to adapt to the stage now.

Visually the show still looks good, but Gregg Barnes’ costumes come nowhere near to what Theoni V. Aldredge created. They were a show unto themselves. Had Casey Nicholaw followed the template of what Michael Bennett created and known more about musical drama, this Dreamgirls should have been an absolute knockout; now it’s just “well, it was nice to revisit.”

 

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published June 30, 2017
Reviewed at June 21, 2017 performance in London

 

Dreamgirls

‘DREAMGIRLS’: Amber Riley. Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Dreamgirls

‘DREAMGIRLS’: The cast. Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

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