Thursday, December 7, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 441, A Review: "Dreamgirls" (Goodspeed Musicals)

By James V. Ruocco 

"We're your Dreamgirls, boys
We'll make you happy
Yeah, yeah, yeah
We're your Dreamgirls, boys
We'll always care
We're your Dreamgirls
Dreamgirls will never leave you!
No, no
And all you've got to do is dream, baby,
We'll be there!"

A musical full of sparkle, glitter, ambition and gorgeous, jaw-dropping Technicolor splish and splash, propelled by pop-infused musical numbers and slick, weighty R&B dance moves from Motown's heyday, "Dreamgirls" - currently blazing its way to megawatt proportions on the Goodspeed Musicals stage - takes its cue, in part, from the real-life story of Diana Ross and the Supremes and other musical acts of the 1960's including The Shirelles, James Brown and Jackie Wilson.


"Dreamgirls" moves up the charts at Goodspeed with an amazing power and gusto that packs a punch with knockout joy and delivery that is completely irresistible.

Written by Tom Eyen, the two-act musical tells the compelling story of The Dreams, a dynamic, all-female singing group hoping for a big break in the music industry of the 1960s and 1970s. Their hopes to harmonize their way to stardom, however, take a decidedly different turn when Effie, the trio's overweight lead singer is moved to the sidelines when Deena, the beautiful, charismatic, backup singer is chosen to front the group to make it more appealing, distinctive and marketable. 

Ross, of course, hated this pitch when "Dreamgirls" first played Broadway back in 1981 and vehemently denied that "Dreamgirls" had anything to do with the real-life story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Sadly, no one believed her.  And quite frankly, no one cared.

Staging "Dreamgirls," director Lili-Anne Brown brings a tremendous sense of theatricality and shimmer to the proceedings. It's a grounded assemblage of control and commitment schooled and embellished with just the right amount of thrust, drama, humor, heartbreak, redemption and hope necessary to pique interest and keep the story moving toward its inevitable, justified conclusion.
As director, she is completely knowledgeable of the "Dreamgirls" concept, its rags to riches drama, its cat fights, its divas, its glitter, its sparkle, its pulse, its truths, its lies, its struggles, its gender and racial issues and its showbiz aspirations and successes.
Yes, there's a lot of ground to cover. Yes, certain plot points move too quickly or get lost in the shuffle. But, nonetheless, Brown kicks the musical into overdrive, sustains interest, gets laughs and tears in all the right places and involves her audience in show's powerhouse heartbreak and passion.
She also has cast the musical surprisingly well from leads and supporting characters to the very talented men and woman who play a variety of ensemble roles throughout the "Dreamgirls" story.

Taking its cue from the classic Motown R&B acts of yesteryear, the adrenaline-fueled musical score for "Dreamgirls" was written by Tom Eyen (lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music). Mixing pop, soul, jazz and funk alongside carefully chosen Broadway-Las Vegas style melodies, diva turns and concert spins and vibes, it includes several noteworthy musical numbers including "Family," "Dreamgirls," "Cadillac Car," "Move (Your Steppin' On My Heart)," "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," "I Am Changing," "One Night Only," "When I First Saw You," "You Are My Dream," "Hard to Say Goodbye (My Love)" and "Steppin' to the Bad Side."
At Goodspeed, musical direction for "Dreamgirls" is provided by Christie Chiles Twillie whose credits include "Hair," "Five Guys Named Moe," "Raisin," "Newsies" and "The Gospel at Colonus." Doubling as conductor and keyboardist, she is joined by musicians Wes Dziedzic (keyboard 2), Elliot Wallace (percussion), Liz Baker Smith (reeds), Travis Higgins III (trumpet), Ben Herrington (trombone), Nick DiFabbio (guitar) and Sherisse Rogers (bass).

Given the musical's different rhythmic styles, beats and leaps through the decades, there's a lot to work with here and Twillie and her orchestral team have got every musical twist, turn, gasp, jump, thrill and heartbreak covered. From the musical's immersive opening number "I'm Looking for Something, Baby" to the melancholy-tinged "Hard to Say Goodbye (My Love)" that brings Act II to a close, all of the songs are fully imagined in true "Dreamgirls" style and, one of one, they each play out with decided flourish, joyfulness, gusto and pizzaz envisioned by the show's creators.
This is LIVE music that pops, sizzles, stirs, gyrates and hypnotizes.
It is hot. It is heavy. It is loud. It is rich. It is playful. It is sensual. It is romantic. It is melodic.
Twillie and company have great fun bringing it to life for both the audience and the onstage performer, addressing the musical's catalog of showstopping songs with just the right tempo, pulse and imagination to plunge the familiar story of "Dreamgirls" forward effortlessly. It makes all the difference in the world. 

The enlistment of Breon Arzell as choreographer for "Dreamgirls" benefits the musical enhancement of Tom Eyen's colorful scenario and the many characters who reveal their innermost thoughts, desires and passions through song and dance. Here, he sets the Goodspeed Musicals stage aglow with some very passionate, sizzling, powerful footwork that recall and reflect the eclectic R&B pairings, styles, pop infusions indicative of "Hullabaloo," "Shindig!" "American Bandstand," "The Hollywood Palace," "Soul Train" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."
As "Dreamgirls" inches forward, he dazzles and delights. He gets the juices flowing. He knows how to make things pop. He is completely in sync with the time frame, the look and the vibe of the story. He knows how to move people about through carefully constructed dance moves and maneuvers. He's also not afraid to take chances, up the stakes or experiment with the musical's already proven material.  

As with the original 1981 production of "Dreamgirls," its subsequent 1983 National Tour and the triumphant 2016 London West End revival that starred "Glee's" Amber Riley as Effie White, casting - the right casting, that is - is key to the musical's success, its storytelling, its authenticity and its connection between actor and audience.
At Goodspeed, the leading ladies - Trejah Bostic as Efflie White, Ta-Tynisa Wilson as Deena Jones, Keirsten Hodgens as Lorrell Robinson, Shantel Cribbs as Michelle Morris -  and the leading men - Mykal Kilgore as Jimmy Early, Evan Tyrone Martin as Curtis Taylor, Jos. N. Banks as CC White - bring incredible vocal range, personality and a dynamic stage presence to their respective roles which adds layers of truth, resonance and importance to the production, its captivating musical score and its emotional storytelling journey. 

Photos of "Dreamgirls" courtesy of Diane Sobolewski

"Dreamgirls" is being staged at Goodspeed Musicals (6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT), now through December 30, 2023.
For tickets for more information, call (860) 873-8668