The very pleasant surprise of the current national touring production of “Dreamgirls” is how well the original book by Tom Eyen and score by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Eyen have held up. When this roman a clef about the creation of America’s first assimilated black girl group preemed on Broadway in 1983, the general consensus was that Michael Bennett’s staging and choreography, together with Tharon Musser’s innovative lighting and a breakthrough perf by Jennifer Holliday, saved the enterprise. Twenty-five years later, in a pared-down production that features director Robert Longbottom’s much less impressive choreography, “Dreamgirls” reveals itself to be what Eyen and Krieger’s tuner always has been: top-drawer Broadway.
First off, this “Dreamgirls” is blessed with Moya Angela and Chester Gregory in the crucial roles of those African-American performers who refuse to assimilate, Effie Melody White and James “Thunder” Early. Angela has the kind of huge laser voice that pierces your body before you know what’s pinned you to your seat. Gregory turns squealing into an art form, and his rubber legs are the perfect embodiment of that voice. Yes, Angela enters as a very mature Effie and she doesn’t grow or change much throughout the evening. But there’s that trumpet voice. Once upon a time, Broadway auds blessed a less-than-inspired actress with the monicker the Merm. Well, here’s the Moya.
Act two could use a little modulation, not just from Angela and Gregory but from the evening’s other Dreamgirls, Syesha Mercado as Deena and Adrienne Warren as Lorrell, in their vocal turns. (This production adds the Beyonce song “Listen” from the 2006 movie version.) Not every song needs to be a show-stopper. In fact, the constantly loud all-stops-out approach here creates an odd imbalance in the show, and you might find yourself taking a certain relief in the Dreamgirls’ more generic pop take on, say, “One Night Only,” over Effie’s version simply because it’s quieter.
Into all of this scene-stealing drops Chaz Lamar Shepherd’s wheeler-dealer Curtis Taylor Jr., the car salesman-turned-record exec who wills the Dreamgirls to superstardom. Shepherd makes his presence felt simply by playing it low-key and determined. Time has been kind to this bad guy. When “Dreamgirls” first opened, Eyen took his knocks for creating such an unrelieved villain. Back then, America was looking for the next Sidney Poitier, and Denzel Washington’s superstar days were well into the future. Today, the Curtis Taylors of the 1960s look downright courageous as trailblazers who created something special in a hostile environment.
Designers Robin Wagner and Ken Billington provide illuminated walls of light that can turn from showbizzy garish to jerry-built looking. It’s a reminder of what any performer’s life looks like beyond the spotlight. William Ivey Long’s costumes are period perfect yet witty in their re-creations of a flamboyant era.