Review: ‘Dreamgirls’

"American Idol" outcast Frenchie Davis, in the role that made Jennifer Holliday a star, provides the marquee value -- but not the only reason to see this sturdy revival. Hewing close to blueprint of Michael Bennett's original 1981 Broadway production, current edition is high-gloss fun with potential to travel past its current slate of gigs at West Coast houses.

“American Idol” outcast Frenchie Davis, in the role that made Jennifer Holliday a star, provides the marquee value — but not necessarily the only, or even the best — reason to see this sturdy revival of “Dreamgirls.” Hewing close to the blueprint of Michael Bennett’s original 1981 Broadway production, current edition is high-gloss fun with potential to travel past its current slate of gigs at the three co-producing companies’ West Coast houses.

Davis won notoriety when she was dropped abruptly from “Idol” last year after revelation that she’d once posed for some risque photos — a pretty ridiculous reason to bar anyone from the already tawdry world of “reality TV” competition. Viewer outcry didn’t finagle her reinstatement, but the whole silly circumstance might wind up being a career boost in the long run anyway.

She’s aptly cast here as Effie, the heavy-set driving force behind the Dreamettes — a black girl group whose soap operatic saga vaguely echoes that of the real-life Supremes.

Once the trio gets noticed, scoring a backup gig with James Brown-style soul shouter James “Thunder” Early (the excellent Harrison White), ambitious new manager Curtis (David Jennings) pulls a fast one. He insists Effie relinquish lead vocals to slimmer, more conventionally pretty Deena (Angela Robinson) so the redubbed Dreams can achieve a “lighter sound” and more glamorous image that will help them cross over onto the pop charts.

Obstinate and hurt — not least because Curtis had been sharing her bed — Effie finally gets thrown out of the group, her reaction being the blowout protest torch song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (the tune Davis slayed “Idol” judges and fans with).

Act two finds her struggling to regroup while the Dreams get lonely at the top. Chafing under Curtis’ obsessive control, Deena wants to exit for an acting career, Lorrell (Ramona Keller) yearns for simple domesticity and replacement member Michelle (Rosena M. Hill) would prefer to jump ship alongside her beau C.C. (Andre Garner), hit songwriter and Effie’s (now estranged) brother.

Always more of an audience than a critical fave, “Dreamgirls” sports book and lyrics by Tom Eyen that are just workmanlike, and a score by Henry Krieger that’s much better at R&B-to-disco Top 40 styles than it is when awkwardly moving the plot along. Still, the predictable backstage histrionics provide engine enough to support a nostalgic fashion show (both literal and musical) that’s slickly pulled off here.

As in Bennett’s original production, settings are limited to mobile lighting towers and a succession of variety-show curtains, while Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes (abetted by new contributions from Steven Howard and Bob Miller) remain a giddy, kitschy salute to the era’s outrageous showbiz glamour. Tom Sturge’s rich lighting design and original cast member Brenda Braxton’s clever choreography put the finishing touches on a fleet, flashy physical production.

Though she has had some pro theatrical experience, Davis is still just 24 and not yet fully ripened as a stage presence. Lacking nothing in the vocal department — a faint sonic resemblance to Aretha proves useful here — she hasn’t yet learned to inhabit her character with equal confidence. As a result, “I’m Not Going” comes off as a pyrotechnic climax rather than an emotional one; the more relaxed post-intermission “I’m Changing” better showcases her dynamic range. Still, there’s little doubt that she’s got the raw talent required, and should grow to fill out her role as the run proceeds.

“Dreamgirls” isn’t really a star vehicle in any case; Robinson, Keller, Jennings and White more than pull their own weight, vocally and otherwise, in a cast lineup that’s quite strong overall.

Dreamgirls

San Jose Center for the Performing Arts; 2,600 seats; $75.50 top

Production

An American Musical Theater of San Jose production, in association with California Music Theater and 5th Avenue Theater, of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger. Directed by Mark S. Hoebee. Musical director, Marc Falcone.

Creative

Choreographer, Brenda Braxton; original set design, Robin Wagner; original costume design, Theoni V. Alredge; additional costumes, Steven Howard, Bob Miller; lighting, Tom Sturge; sound, Robert Sereno; production stage manager, Bob Bones. Opened Jan. 10, 2004. Reviewed Jan. 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Effie White - Frenchie Davis Deena Jones - Angela Robinson Curtis Taylor Jr. - David Jennings James Thunder Early - Harrison White Lorrell Robinson - Ramona Keller C.C. White - Andre Garner Marty - Regi Davis Michelle - Rosena M. Hill
With: Don Alden, Carmichael Blankenship, Maureen Brown, Iris Burruss, Taryn Darr, Doug Eskew, Wilkie Ferguson III, LaVon D. Fisher, Stacey Harris, Monique L. Midgette, Christopher L. Morgan, Clifton Oliver, Kelsey Scott, Sandy Shimoda, Kevin Steele, Robert Tatad, Erwin G. Urbi, Titus West, Ty Willis, Ted Zervoulakos.
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