Dreamgirls

April 7, 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Enduring success

Playhouse: Tue 5 – Sat 16 April 2022
Review by Tom Ralphs

The plot of Dreamgirls, which arrives that the Playhouse for an extended fortnight run until April 16, could be an instruction manual for music moguls.

Washed down with some strong songs, the blurred lines between fiction and real-life exploitation of young singers that Dreamgirls straddles, have turned it into an enduring success that still plays to sell-out audiences more than 40 years after its Broadway debut.

Dreamgirls. Pic: MattCrocket

Dreamgirls follows an all-female band from their start as young innocents, dreaming of achieving fame via an amateur talent contest, to chart topping Vegas headliners.

Their rise is driven by a manipulative Svengali-like manager, Curtis, whose actions wreck the dreams of the most talented of the three, whose looks don’t fit the idealised image, while turning another into a superstar who will eventually outgrow the band.

The Dreamettes, who go on to become The Dreamers, are Effie White (Nicole Raquel Dennis), Deena Jones (Natalie Kassanga) and Lorrell Robinson (Paige Peddie). From the outset, the three performers make the differences between the singers clear.

wide-eyed dreamer

Dennis plays Effie as confident and strident, the least willing to compromise. At the other extreme, Peddie’s Lorrell captures the wide-eyed dreamer thrilled by the ride and excited at each place it takes her.

As Deena, Kassanga is initially harder to read, which can later be seen as early proof that she’s the most ambitious, already playing the game and knowing what she needs to do to keep everyone on side.

Dreamgirls. Pic: MattCrocket

The first act crams a lot in, beginning with a talent show where their manager Curtis (Dom Hartley-Harris) engineers a result that leads to them becoming backing singers to Jimmy Earley (Brandon Lee Sears), before taking over Earley’s career from his former manager Marty (Jo Servi).

Sears is the star turn through much of the first act, delivering a performance that makes Earley look and feel like Little Richard would have done if Prince had played him in a biopic. He manages to keep the character just on the right side of caricature to be both convincing and, at times, laugh out loud funny.

Hartley-Harris’s depiction of Curtis as a young streetwise hustler is counter-balanced by Servi’s older, down to earth portrayal of Marty. While both men are equally as aware of the obstacles black artists faced in the 60s, it is clear from the performances that only Curtis is savvy enough and confident enough to believe he can crash through them.

passion

After taking on Earley, Curtis blands down his act so that he can achieve mainstream success with white audiences, but his main ambitions lie with the Dreamers.

By the end of the first act the Dreamgirls are a headline act, stepping out from Earley’s shadows. But while the groups are now stars, Effie has been forced out. Dennis’s delivery of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going packs the song with so much passion that all the meaning and emotion in the lyrics are laid bare with a raw intensity.

Dreamgirls. Pic: MattCrocket

However, on the whole the act suffers from how much ground it has covered. There is the feeling that it is just scratching the surface of the story, reducing complex issues and relationships to four-minute vignettes. The second act doesn’t take in as much and is all the better for it.

The transformation of Deena from band member to media icon and solo superstar in the making is cleverly depicted through Tom Eyen’s book and lyrics and Michael Bennett’s direction.

It’s easy to identify Deena as the villain of the piece when it comes to the side-lining of Effie. And taking Curtis from Effie just adds to the sense that she always saw herself as the star and was using her co-singers as a stepping stone in her own career.

As Michelle, Effie’s replacement, Brianna Ogunbayo has the unenviable task of portraying a character whose role was simply to fill a space on the stage left by her predecessor.

battles

Effie continues to be the character you are drawn to, however, as she battles addictions and attempts to resurrect her career. She is helped by her songwriter brother C.C (Shem Omari Jones), who has also been cast aside by Curtis after going unrewarded for writing songs that were stripped of their soul before becoming hits for someone else.

Jones gives a quiet performance as the type of person the music industry tries to eat up and spit out. His resolve to not let it do so – to fight back and reunite with his sister – gives the musical a more uplifting message than the stories of many of the real-life bands that are said to have inspired it.

Dreamgirls. Pic: MattCrocket

The songs are a mixed bunch. For all the classics such as And I Am Telling You.. and Listen, there are space fillers that don’t capture the magic of the period. However, when the story and songs click together, the performances take it up to another level.

While many of the issues raised are underplayed, their continuing relevance is hard to disagree with in an age where manufactured bands can still be milked for all their worth and where body image is often more the focus of attention than the voice of the singer.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (including one interval)
Playhouse 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Phone booking: 0844 871 3014.
Tuesday 5 – Saturday 16 April 2022
Mon – Sat: 7.30; Mats Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: book here.

The cast of Dreamgirls. Pic: MattCrocket

ENDS

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