Theater review: 'Dreamgirls' at the Ahmanson Theatre
Powerhouse singing is hardly in short supply in the bluntly entertaining touring production of “Dreamgirls,” Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s groundbreaking 1981 musical loosely based on the career of the “Supremes,” which opened Tuesday at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Residents of downtown Los Angeles may have heard the sonic boom that nearly short-circuited a swath of the city when Moya Angela delivered the first act finale, “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going” -- Effie White’s anthem of heartbreak denial that turned two Jennifers, Holliday and Hudson, into instant national treasures.
Angela released as much pain and desperation as a singer can without being straitjacketed, and somehow her vocal cords survived to handle (thankfully, with a bit more gradation and color) Effie’s big second act numbers, “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only.”
The all-out attack of Angela’s performance was of a piece with the “American Idol”-ization of this revival, directed by Robert Longbottom with nonstop generic glitz. This is a production that sets out to pummel its audience into smiling submission. The unrelenting dazzle is in fact so exhausting that the producers might want to consider supplying cots for intermission. (Naps might very well generate more dollars than concession coffee.)
Spectacular effects are, by definition, thrilling to behold, yet they leave little room for subtler pleasures. Characterizations are eclipsed by clothes (ingeniously engineered quick-change outfits by costume maestro William Ivey Long), and Ken Billington’s flashy lighting on Robin Wagner’s set of shifting panels establishes such a high speed limit that the story more or less whizzes by in outline form.
Tellingly, the production features Syesha Mercado, a second runner-up on the seventh season of “American Idol,” in the Diana Ross-like role of Deena Jones. Mercado has impressive pipes but lacks the acting ability to make a concentrated impression in the part Beyoncé Knowles played in Bill Condon’s popular 2006 movie.
Deena, to recap the plot, is the glamorous diva with the crossover voice who supplants soulful Effie as lead singer in the rising trio. Lorrell Robinson (Adrienne Warren) is the other member of the group, the one who falls hard for James “Thunder” Early (Chester Gregory), the married James Brown-like dynamo who gives the girls their initial break by letting them sing back up for him.
The ups and downs and backstage rivalries of the Dreams (formerly known as the Dreamettes) fills Tom Eyen’s book with enough soap opera reversals for a year of daytime television. The cast of characters includes a record-mogul in training, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), who moves from Effie’s bed to Deena’s after giving the act an R&B-to-pop makeover, and Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Trevon Davis), who runs afoul of Curtis’ mercenary payola scam.
“Dreamgirls,” however, is all about the music, which courses under the dialogue of this mostly sung-through show. Krieger’s melodies and Eyen’s lyrics are a rousing combination, and the soul hasn’t lost any luster in nearly three decades. (Sam Davis’ music direction generates propulsive sound from the orchestra.) The production even repurposes a song from the film, “Listen,” which handily allows Deena and Effie to get past their bad blood.
The action, which leaps from nightclub venues to recording studios, revolves almost exclusively around concert performance, and Longbottom's direction takes its cues accordingly. This approach, reinforced by the choreography of Longbottom and Shane Sparks, seeks to maximize pizazz, which crowds out other musical theater values, most important: emotion. The production would rather wow you than move you, and the only moisture around my eyes was a vicariously earned sweat.
But there are some vibrant comic moments, most memorable those involving Gregory’s James "Thunder" Early. Once the music hits and this sexually irrepressible entertainer begins tracing the beat with his foot, any thoughts he might have of assimilationist success are hilariously thrown out the window.
Let me confess that I’ve been waiting for quite some time for a fresh take on “Dreamgirls,” a musical that bowled me over early in my theatergoing life. Michael Bennett’s original staging introduced a high contemporary standard of shiver-inducing theatricality. And not having had the opportunity to experience Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” I took my definition of “showstopper” from Holliday’s galvanic “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going” refusal, as Effie, to be relegated to second best.
Hudson’s subsequent Oscar-winning portrayal (proof that “American Idol,” the show that launched her, does some things right) reassured us that new discoveries are still possible. The poignancy and power haven't been tapped out.
This “Dreamgirls” isn’t the production I’ve been fantasizing about. But it’s certainly an energetic placeholder until a grittier, more authentic version comes along.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
"Dreamgirls," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (Call for exceptions). Ends April 4. $20 to $95. (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Photos: Top, from left, Adrienne Warren, Syesha Mercado and Moya Angela. Bottom: Angela. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times