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Dreamgirls – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

BACK WHERE THEY BELONG

 

picture - DreamgirlsTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published March 8, 2010

 

Dreamgirls

now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre

through April 4

 

Dreamgirls is back where it belongs, on the stage, in a theater (and though this revival was created for Harlem’s Apollo Theater rather than the cavernous Ahmanson, it fits niftily enough into its new space). Forget the self-important, self-absorbed, self-reverential film version and go check out what the original fuss was all about. Like most musicals, Dreamgirls has second-act troubles, but that first act is prime kitsch, flashy and glitzy and exuberant and fluidly fast-paced. It provides a grand old adrenaline rush. And, better still, it takes us back to its satiric roots. Tom Eyen’s book and lyrics was always intended to be a send-up of all those “rags-to-riches” films like A Star Is Born in much the same way that his Women Behind Bars was a campy parody of “women’s prison” movies like Caged. Dreamgirls frankly luxuriates in its over-the-top shenanigans as it delivers its full-throated intensity to the trials and tribulations of its manic star, James “Thunder” Early, and his back-up trio who are itching to get out there on their own. Someday someone will really find the wonderfully cartoon-like structure and go for it and, maybe then , Dreamgirls will not get tripped up, as it does, by the sentimentality of the second act, the sentimentality that Eyen – and his collaborator, Henry Krieger, who shares with Eyen, as evidenced by his pastiche of musical styles, a flair for parody – intended to send up.

 

But that first act doesn’t miss a beat. And, while you await the moment when Effie, the Dreamgirl who gets shafted because she’s not sexy enough, brings the curtain down with that endless “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” you will discover that the real star of Dreamgirls is not Effie but James “Thunder” Early and, in Chester Gregory, we have a real star-in-the making. Gregory can sing any musical style you throw at him. while doing splits and double splits and, in general, moving like an express train headed for the Great White Way. He is Al Jolson, Sammy Davis, James Brown and The Nicholas Brothers rolled into one. After Gregory, Effie’s big number, even in the capable hands of Moya Angela, seems downright anti-climactic.

 

picture - DreamgirlsIn fact, once Early gets shoved into the background, and the dramatic rise of the Dreamgirls takes center stage, interest generally wanes. It is because these are not real people but primarily comic creations, and they cannot rise to the intended melodrama, or, rather, it is to the unintended melodrama that they do rise. Instead of floating on an effervescently glittery cloud, they sink. It is not the fault of the performers, since the musical numbers are beautifully shaped and rush in every time there is a lull. But there is no mistaking the genuine non-stop fun that is whipped up in the first act. It may also be that once Effie sings her now-immortalized big number with all its vocal pyrotechnics, where does one go from there? Perhaps one day someone will sing it for comic effect. The overblowness is, after all, built into it.

 

Still, all carping aside, this Dreamgirls is a delight. Robert Logbottom’s direction and choreography brings vividly to life the excitement of Michael Bennett’s original production; Robin Wagner’s set design and Ken Billington’s lighting do the job keeping things flowing from stage to backstage with lightning swiftness, and William Ivey Long’s costumes are often hilariously garish. And the entire cast – especially Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Trevon Davis and Syesha Mercado – is, musically, a joy. So it’s nice to have them back where they belong. On a stage. In a theater.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Joan Marcus

  

 
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