Musical has enough vocal talent to compensate for the stiff acting.
There’s bad news and good about the much-anticipated revival of “Dreamgirls,” kicking off, like the action of the show itself, on the storied stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater before a national tour. Cultists of the 1981 musical about an African-American girl group’s rise to success might have been hoping for a Broadway-caliber production that would demand a midtown New York return. In most ways that count, this staging falls short of that wish. But as a road property, it’s top-tier, packaged to travel and stuffed with vocal talent that does justice to Henry Krieger’s sensational songs and helps compensate for stiff acting and a shortage of emotional clout.
As the first major U.S. production since Bill Condon’s 2006 DreamWorks/Paramount screen adaptation, the musical seems poised to cash in on a new generation of fans. And the audible response at the Apollo to key movie moments, including the effective addition of the song “Listen,” written for the film, suggests a public less likely to judge by the standards of Michael Bennett’s iconic original production — a good thing for everyone concerned.
Bennett established “Dreamgirls” as a musical built for speed. Using the movable towers and bridge of Robin Wagner’s set, and the white-hot lighting of Tharon Musser, Bennett endlessly reconfigured settings, often multiple times in the same number, aided by blink-of-an-eye costume changes. The staging achieved a breathtaking cinematic fluidity that papered over the weaknesses in Tom Eyen’s book.
Revival director-choreographer Robert Longbottom takes his cue from Bennett. Wagner again heads the design team, collaborating with media designer Howard Werner in an attempt to replicate much of the original staging’s flow and heat via five giant LED panels.
This gets the show off to a promising start. Principal characters are introduced, backstage negotiations take place and snippets of acts from an Apollo talent night are heard before the Dreamettes seize the stage with a sizzling “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart).” Even when the media installations are overworked, as in a Busby Berkeley-esque inflation of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” the pace of the show and energy of its songs win out.
The LED screens are less successful when used more literally. The cityscapes as the girls tour the country are cheesy, and the multicamera studio setup of their TV appearances is a busy visual distraction from the vocal performances. In act two, Longbottom appears to run out of ways to employ the LED panels.
On the plus side, “Dreamgirls” has a first-act emotional crescendo that, even with acting limitations, will not be denied. As the trio — made up of Effie (Moya Angela), Deena (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (Adrienne Warren), and now given the more grownup moniker the Dreams — emerge from singing backup for flamboyant James Brown-style funkster James “Thunder” Early (Chester Gregory), zaftig lead singer Effie gets pushed aside by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), their manager and also her lover. In a bid for mainstream crossover, Curtis shoves sleeker, more telegenic Deena into the spotlight.
Effie’s wounded roar, which builds from that moment through her eventual expulsion from the group, is like a volcano rumbling in the confrontation “It’s All Over,” and then erupting in anger and desperation in “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” No matter how familiar it’s become via the shattering performances of Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, hearing this wrenching declaration in its dramatic context is still a thrill, and Angela sings the hell out of it. But the showstopping charge of that song also means “Dreamgirls” never again equals that intensity.
The more sluggish second act opens with a new song, “What Love Can Do,” that’s strictly a B-side and underscores a shift in tone with this production.
Longbottom undersells the central theme of artists emerging from the soul ghetto to achieve popular success while to a large degree surrendering what’s distinctive about black music. The “Showbiz. It’s just showbiz” motif so central to Bennett’s production somehow gets lost. Longbottom gets caught up instead in the rocky relationships and the empowerment of women coming into their own, stepping out from the shadows of men. Many audiences no doubt will warm to this, but it makes for a more banal story.
Threaded in among some wooden book scenes there are still tremendous musical highs. Angela makes Effie’s bid to reclaim her life and career, “I Am Changing,” a proud moment; Warren pumps steely resolve and a terrific balance of humor and bitterness into Lorrell’s “Ain’t No Party,” a knockout song dropped for the movie, in which she laments years of empty promises from married Jimmy; and “Listen” is deftly repurposed as a duet in which Deena asks Effie for forgiveness, and Effie urges Deena to dump no-account Curtis.
Angela veers into screechy vocal grandstanding, but that’s what audiences in the “American Idol” age seem to crave, and the song provides the two women a strong dramatic reconciliation that reverberates through a conclusion borrowed from the movie.
But emotional depth is not Longbottom’s forte. Too often, the characters are as cartoonish as the screen graphics, particularly Jimmy. Gregory is a dynamite performer and his antics are a blast in numbers like “Fake Your Way to the Top” and “I Want You Baby,” in which he tries to keep a lid on his wilder impulses for a tame white audience, only to be gradually overcome by irrepressible growls and undulations and squeals. His meltdown in “The Rap” is equally entertaining, but there’s no pathos behind the comedy, so the sorrow of Jimmy’s career implosion doesn’t resonate.
Angela fares better, largely because Effie is such a powerhouse role. She’s uneven in book scenes but pours so much heart into her numbers that she connects. “Idol” runner-up Mercado doesn’t show much range but has the satiny sheen and clean pop sound to fit the mold of breakout singers from Diana Ross through Beyonce.
Weakest link is Shepherd, whose Curtis is sleazy and overbearing but lacks the brilliance of a born impresario or the charm to convincingly bewitch the show’s two main female characters. The bad wig doesn’t help. In the smaller roles of Lorrell and Effie’s songwriter brother C.C., Warren and Trevon Davis register warmly.
Longbottom’s choreography is a mixed bag, appealing in the witty girl-group approximations of “Move” and “Cadillac Car” but lapsing into period caricature and generic boy-band riffs for the male dance ensemble.
Mixed too is William Ivey Long’s endless parade of costumes (reportedly 580 of them), a glitzy assortment of high-glamour gowns and slick suits, with some occasional eyesores. The fashion photo-shoot outfits look like silly “Project Runway” rejects, and the campy Vegas-harem outfits take the predatory sting out of “One Night Only,” when Curtis hijacks the song from Effie.
But tour audiences are unlikely to mind the shortcomings. What matters is that “Dreamgirls” delivers a semblance of luxe, wrapped around an entertaining story and studded with driving toe-tappers and luscious power ballads.