Stints in Korea, uptown rep unusual production model

The opening scene of “Dreamgirls” has always been set, as an announcer proclaims, “Live from the Apollo Theater!” But this time, he really means it.

The venue, where a new revival of “Dreamgirls” is running through Dec. 12, seems like a natural fit for the 1981 tuner, given its storyline centered on the women in a 1960s African-American girl group.

But from a producing standpoint, it’s one of two unusual departures from the more commonplace strategy of opening a revival on Broadway before hitting the road.

The other unorthodox step was giving the show an out-of-town tryout that was way, way out of town — in Seoul, South Korea, headed by the American creative team but starring a Korean cast who performed the musical in their native language.

The cross-cultural arrangement presented a slew of challenges, but those involved in the production say the international partnership made the show significantly cheaper than a more traditionally produced revival. Although final budget numbers are yet to be determined, the estimated capitalization for the Korean staging is between $6.5 million and $7 million, plus an additional $5 million to $6 million for the Stateside outing.

“It was logistically a nightmare,” says producer John Breglio. “But it made the production possible. I could do it and make some sense out of it, economically.”

“Dreamgirls,” which originated in an iconic production staged by the late Michael Bennett (“A Chorus Line”), had been the subject of revival discussions even before the release of the 2006 DreamWorks/Paramount screen adaptation, which earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar. But it was the film version that ratcheted up overseas appeal.

“After the movie, I started getting interest all over the world,” says Breglio, also an entertainment attorney who is the executor of Bennett’s estate. “The show became an international brand.”

The strongest offer came from Korean producer Chunsoo Shin, with whom Breglio partnered for the venture. (He and Shin, who handled local financing for the Korean outing, co-produce the current tour with Jake Prods. and Broadway Across America/TBS.)

The musical-theater market in South Korea has been booming for years, and the movie significantly raised the property’s profile in the country — so much so the Korean contingent requested that creatives incorporate “Listen,” a song written for the movie (and sung by Beyonce), into the stage version.

Turns out Henry Krieger, who wrote the “Dreamgirls” score with the late book writer-lyricist Tom Eyen, had no objections. He teamed with lyricist Willie Reale to work “Listen” into the second act at a crucial moment that sees two lead characters, Effie and Deena, end a long estrangement.

“It’s the 11 o’clock number that we never had,” Krieger says. “Now Effie and Deena reunite in a way that the audience always wanted.”

He and Reale also penned a new opener for the second act, “What Love Can Do,” to replace a montage sequence which, Krieger says, never satisfied him.

Meanwhile, American director Robert Longbottom (“Bye Bye Birdie”) and the Yankee design team began to contend with the logistics of the global-spanning collaboration.

Costumes — there are 580, designed by Broadway vet William Ivey Long — were sewn in South Korea to take advantage of the lower costs of labor and materials.

But the two Korean costume shops employed by the production had to be carefully monitored to meet American expectations, which differed from the usual Korean model. Plus, the American production required an entirely different set of costumes, reflecting not just different actor sizes but also changes in palette to complement Asian and African-American skin tones.

Producers and creatives decided that the set, which includes multiple LED screens, should be built in an East Coast scene shop due to its demanding technological complexity. (Robin Wagner, who designed the original Bennett production, again takes charge of sets in the revival.) Then it had to be shipped over to South Korea for the Seoul run, and transported back for the American tour.

Helmer Longbottom, who choreographs along with Shane Sparks (“So You Think You Can Dance”), grappled with directing the Korean cast through a translator, not to mention the fact that many roles were double-cast, with actors performing alternating perfs, which is the custom for Korean-produced musicals.

“But it’s a good project to do in another language because it’s so music-driven,” Longbottom says. “And the audience response would always tell you when the emotional temperature was right.”

Those involved say the trans-Pacific obstacles were outweighed by the advantages of getting the show on its feet for a full production — and then honing it before the U.S. bow.

“We had a lot of time to look at everything and to fiddle,” Breglio says. “For me, I could see whether I had a show that worked.”

The Asian production, which played for six months beginning in February, recently picked up six Korea Musical Awards, including one for foreign tuner. As a producing model, the international joint venture, which differs significantly from the standard transfer model, has worked well enough that Breglio intends to replicate the arrangement with a South African production to bow in January 2011 and move on to the West End.

Here in the U.S., the decision to stage the show at the Apollo, which came to Breglio a couple of years ago when he went to the famous uptown venue for a movie premiere, brought its own set of challenges.

The Apollo has never presented a legit production on the scale of “Dreamgirls.” The theater’s offstage wing space, much smaller than the wings of a Broadway-style theater, provided a significant hurdle, particularly in a show with so many costume changes.

But the unusual choice of venue allows the production to capitalize on the tuner’s direct tie to the Apollo. (Now, not only the opening number but also the Act II finale are set there.) The move also can tap African-American and music-enthusiast auds who may not have turned out so readily for a Broadway run. (In early perfs, Breglio reports a wide racial mix in the house, with weekday evening shows being predominantly white and weekends pulling in crowds that are about 65% African American.)

The non-Rialto location and its subsequent tour also reduce some of the pressure that would be felt in a Broadway revival of a fave property among legiters.

Still, the current arrangement doesn’t rule out Broadway. A Main Stem run could still materialize, Breglio says, but not until sometime after the tour, currently booked through 2010.

“Then the question is, What do we do?” Breglio says.

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