Critic Frank Rich called the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls” a “seismic emotional jolt that sends the audience, as one, right out of its wits.” It’s taken 35 years for the shockwave to reach across the Atlantic, but with Amber Riley of “Glee” as Effie White, the effect of the musical — in a belated U.K. premiere directed by Casey Nicholaw — is absolutely undiminished. Neither its score nor its story is the surprise it once was, but the secret of “Dreamgirls” is the human voice and, by letting larynxes loose, it drives audiences wild.
London’s Savoy Theater is three stories underground, but even so, if you’re strolling past at street level at around 8:30 pm, you’ll probably hear Riley hammering “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” all the way home. You’ll certainly hear the huge mid-show ovation that follows. Hers is a weapons-grade voice, the sort that flattens audiences like a blast wave. She can drop from full volume to a velvety hush in an instant, or build it up the other way, notch by notch, until she nails a belt note like nobody’s business. It’s a voice that gets into your very bones.
That’s what Effie, the soulful lead singer relegated to backing vocalist (and the role that won Jennifer Hudson an Oscar), needs and deserves. The superstar-in-waiting of a small-time girl group, The Dreamettes, she’s the stand-out talent that gets them picked up by manipulative manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Joe Aaron Reid). Starting them as backup singers for the outlandish soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Adam J. Bernard) — a thrusting solo artist with a sandpaper scream — his plans extend far beyond that to mainstream success of their own. That means a new look and a new sound, with the lighter-skinned, lighter-voiced and lighter-weight Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine) promoted to lead at Effie’s expense. Only Effie’s not really one for support.
Beneath the pop, then, there are politics: the spoils, in both senses, of assimilation. There are big gains to be had, financially and socially, in being palatable to white eyes and ears, but they come at the cost of integrity and identity – of soul, you might say. While it’s hilarious to watch Bernard as Jimmy straining to keep a lid on his libido in his newly blazered routine, it’s less so to see the Dreams drifting into cheap, tawdry disco like “One Night Only.” Gregg Barnes’ outré costumes tell a story all of their own: the suits get sharper, the skirts get shorter and the sparkle gets just about everywhere. It’s telling that the push-and-pull of Tom Eyen’s lyrics is between choice and coercion. That famous ground-standing, “I’m not going,” is echoed by Curtis’s control: “You’re not going,” he commands
Nicholaw’s (“The Book of Mormon,” “Aladdin”) production is a glitzy thing, and Tim Hatley’s designs never skimp on the Swarovsky, dazzling under Hugh Vanstone’s showbiz lamps. But the show is mainly motored by big, power-surge voices. LaFontaine more or less matches Riley when the two come together for a luscious duet, “Listen,” and Bernard tears it up time and again as Jimmy. There’s characterful support from Ibinabo Jack as youngest, bubble-gummiest Dreamette Lorrell and from Tyrone Huntley as the sibling-songwriter C.C. White, even if Reid tips into cartoon villainy as the moneygrabbing manager by the end. His sly smiles early on grow into great grimaces, until he ends up grinding his teeth to a powder.
But it’s Riley’s show. It’s probably Riley’s year and, if it is, that may make up for history too. On Broadway, “Dreamgirls” was eclipsed at the 1982 Tony Awards by Tommy Tune’s “Nine.” Thirty-five years on, it might finally win that Best Musical gong.