Closing the Long Beach Civic Light Opera’s 44th season, “Dreamgirls” is an entertaining and polished presentation that nonetheless misses the passion of other productions. While this incarnation of the 1982 Broadway musical may not elicit strong emotions, it has an amiable cast, and the music by Henry Kreiger and lyrics by Tom Eyen are pleasant.
The story — based, unofficially, on the lives of the Supremes — concerns three young black women in the ’60s launching a pop group: lead singer Effie (Ellia English), Deena (Susan Beaubian) and Lorrell (Connie Jackson). Effie’s brother, C.C. (Marvin Thornton), writes their songs.
The women start as backup singers to soul rocker James Thunder Early (Phillip Gilmore). They all become a success thanks to C.C.’s hit composition and some smart maneuvering by Curtis (Jerry Dixon), a music manager who understands persistence and payola.
Curtis later splits the women off from Early, making Deena the lead singer for the Dreams; Effie, relegated to backup, is unhappy to the point where her temper scenes cause Curtis to drop her.
Director David Thome catches the show’s highlights, and paces the action well , but misses almost all the flair that ignited the original production under Michael Bennett’s hand. While Thome has found a resounding Effie in Ellia English, the other Dreamettes come across as bland, mainly because Thome draws no subtext from them or their relationships.
Great productions of “Dreamgirls” have people crying at Effie’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Here, the song, while retaining some of its power, is sandwiched among by-the-book renditions. Audiences may wonder why some people consider this a great show.
Without strong characterizations leading the way, a flaw in Eyen’s book structure becomes more apparent. Effie is the protagonist, but she’s out of the action often. When the audience should see Effie struggling, down and out, they instead are shown the other Dreamettes who, here, have no charisma.
Even so, a few cast members lend shape to their characters’ souls. Gilmore rolls some lightning into his James Thunder Early, and Dixon shows why Curtis has charm. Thornton gives C.C. the kind of naivete that makes his songs honest and from the heart, and English has the right drive, voice and carriage for Effie.
Many of the other cast members, while making the right moves and following the adequate choreography, are just bodies on the stage.
Perhaps the greatest stars of the evening are costume designers Theoni V. Aldredge and Garland Riddle: Not only do the designers capture the ’60s and ’70s well through clothes, but there’s the addition of dazzle.
Hair and makeup design by Elena Breckenridge echo Diana Ross and the Supremes.
The live orchestra and musical direction by John McDaniel also lend needed vitality.