Not having experienced “Dreamgirls” the first time around, this reviewer can’t judge how closely the current version shimmying back toward Broadway resembles the original. But previous road reports indicate it’s a fair facsimile, which can only leave one to wonder how it was that this pop musical, garish, ersatz and overbearing in its mediocrity, nabbed six Tonys and ran for a terrifying 1,522 performances. Auds with fond memories of the original may be perfectly happy to take a trip down memory lane, but since the show hit the Great White Way back in 1981 (and returned in ’87), the musical experience of African-Americans has been explored with far greater authenticity in such Broadway shows as “Jelly’s Last Jam” and the current “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” leaving “Dreamgirls,” which has all the depth of a sequin, looking painfully retrograde.
Missing from the mix this time around is the alchemy of the late Michael Bennett, whose direction and choreography have been approximated by Tony Stevens. Here lies one of the problems. Although Stevens admirably re-creates the whirlwind pacing and innovative stagecraft hailed as a breakthrough in Bennett’s original, his work with the actors is inferior.
The first act is close to a nightmare, with the exploits of the three faux-Supremes (Roz White, La Tanya Hall and Tonya Dixon) directed at an outrageously broad comic pitch that makes your average WB sitcom look like a model of subtle character delineation. The fault is clearly Stevens’, since the actresses acquit themselves far better in the more serious second act, when heartbreak and strife arrive on cue to spoil the girls’ rags-to-riches saga.
White, in the role of Effie, the lead singer shunted to backup and later dumped by the group’s merciless manager Curtis Taylor (Brian Evaret Chandler), is stepping into the role that made Jennifer Holliday a Broadway star, however briefly. White has a big, versatile voice, but the vocal arrangement of her soulful showstopper, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” is still cluttered with the mannerisms that Holliday made famous, so of course White suffers by comparison. It’s a disservice to a fine singer, who naturally does better on the simpler second-act ballad “One Night Only.”
Hall gives the most consistently shaped performance as the Diana Ross figure Deena, and Dixon has her moments both vocal and histrionic as the unlucky-in-love Lorrell. As the womanizing R&B star who is the object of her affection, Kevin-Anthony has a show-stopping comic charisma and a punchy tenor.
The music they all ably sing runs from ersatz R&B to ersatz disco, though it all owes a greater debt to Vegas than the Motor City. (Composer Henry Krieger does deserve higher marks for Effie’s two effective, torchy ballads.) Indeed, Krieger’s synthetic Motown sound and the skin-deep sentimentality of Tom Eyen’s book are well-matched, and the generic nature of the whole product is probably what insured the show’s success, and will continue to do so.
Robin Wagner’s minimal design, which uses columns of lights manipulated by actors to indicate a variety of settings, is the subtlest and savviest thing about “Dreamgirls,” while Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, on the other hand, glitter with a fierceness that’s all too apt for the show’s glitzy, glaring superficiality.