Dreamgirls is not my kind of musical, since my basic taste runs to sophisticated and small scale. This is huge, incredibly noisy and with the emotional impact of a juggernaut. But I couldn’t stop smiling with pleasure all the time I was watching it.
Despite all denials to the contrary, Dreamgirls has strong similarities with the story of the Supremes – only it twists the tale by making Florence Ballard end up as famous as Diana Ross. With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, it tells the tale of three singers – beautiful Deena, sassy Lorrell, and big-voiced Effie – and watches their rise to stardom, through heartbreak and out the other side, while simultaneously tracing the rise to dominance of black music.
It does this with considerable cleverness, particularly in the first half, where we watch the three aspiring youngsters in hideous apricot dresses, turning up at a talent contest, where Adam J Bernard‘s energetic Jimmy Early ("the wildest man in showbiz") and his leg-splitting soul antics top the bill. In front of our eyes, and with the help of Tim Hatley’s fluent, brightly lit setting and Gregg Barnes’ iridescent costumes, we watch them morph into a sophisticated pop act, ready to take on the charts.
It is no easy feat because the music world of the early 1960s was unrepentantly white; the girls may shimmy easily into brilliant sequinned frocks for their first big hit, but in a charged and inventive sequence we see it stolen by a white crooner, who turns it into a soupy ballad and performs it in chilly blue. The energy of these early sections is breathtaking – and the performances, particularly from Amber Riley‘s Effie are enough to blow your socks off.
The act concludes with her betrayal by the Svengali who has managed their rise to fame (Joe Aaron Reid, just the right side of unbearable) and the first truly memorable song "And I Am Telling You I am Not Going", a ballad of loss performed with such effortless power that you feel Riley (familiar from the TV series Glee) is just a force of nature. But it’s not a one woman show: Bernard is outstanding as the irrepressible Early, Ibinabo Jack terrific as Lorrell, a girl never afraid to speak her mind, and Liisi LaFontaine touching as Deena.
The second act doesn’t have quite the same momentum as the first, though it does open with a performance in Las Vegas by the new Dreamgirls (without Effie) where the dazzling red and orange fans of the lighting (design by Hugh Vanstone) perfectly and simply conjure a time and a place. But although the demands of narrative slow the pace, the power never lets up.
Michael Bennett was responsible for the original production that enjoyed such success on Broadway in 1981. As choreographer and director here Casey Nicholaw keeps everything fresh and fast, with pin sharp dance routines supplementing some ear-splitting song. In a "hideously white" musical world, Dreamgirls is a joy-filled corrective, full of panache and passion.
Dreamgirls is currently booking at the Savoy Theatre until 6 May 2017.