Dreamgirls – Los Angeles Theater Review
BACK WHERE THEY BELONG
by Harvey Perr
published March 8, 2010
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.
In 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