The new, London production of DREAMGIRLS is dazzling, and new it is. My 35-year memory of Michael Bennett's original was defined by having witnessed Jennifer Holiday’s drop-dead “And I Am Telling You…” aria, the replaying of the original cast album (vinyl, yes), tape (remember?), then CD and now on demand anywhere I am, and the movie version. Tom Eyen’s original book and Henry Kreiger’s music has been expanded, it seems, in ways that add more dimension to the relationships of all the characters. It seems like there are more songs, too (some of which certainly aren’t on the original cast recording), in addition to “Listen”, composed by and for Beyoncé for her star turn in the movie.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, House of Mormon, Something Rotten), it’s bigger, brighter and bolder than I remember it - from the eye-popping costumes by Gregg Barnes to the electrifying set design by Tim Hatley. If the original evoked the bare-knuckle struggle of mainstreaming Black R&B, this DREAMGIRLS celebrates its splashy success, transacting in an almost garish, Las Vegas, show-biz style that allows how cheesy American pop culture can be.
Still, what’s revealed most in this show trans-Atlantic bound - where on Broadway it will, I suspect, be greeted as a new version and not a revival - is what makes the characters tick. Effie’s up against the world, Deena just wants to do her mother proud, Lorell wants a husband to love, CiCi wants to write hit songs and Curtis just wants to make it to the top no matter who or what. The casting, with one exception, is superb.
If Holiday played Effie with angry grit, then Amber Riley (of Glee and Dancing with the Stars TV fame) plays her with sassy spunk. She delivers on Effies’s anthem - and how - bringing even a London audience to standing ovation to close the first act. Riley makes Effie her own, though, in the second act as the Effie who’s recovered from herself, lending a fresh, bluesy interpretation to “I Am Changing” and soulful, almost elegiac, cadence to “One Night Only” (which only makes the disco-ized Deena Jones and The Dreams’ version glitzier still).
The whole cast delivers one number after another non-stop. Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell takes the roof off with “Ain’t No Party “ Adam J. Bernard as Jimmy Early perfects his own manic take on James Brown. Joe Aaron Reid creates a Curtis that is irresistible even as business and sexual villain; he makes "When I First Saw You" swoon. Tyrone Huntley as Effie’s brother Cecil preserves a sense of naïveté even when he knows he done Effie wrong. The only disappointment was Lisi LaFontaine as Deena, who struck me as too big-voiced for the role, and lacking a sultry, enigma that would make her a star. She saves her best game for the rousing duet, “Listen” with Effie, which brought the Savoy to its feet.
The real star of the show, though, is director Nicholaw who not only amazingly preserves the seamless, cinematic quality, integral to Michael Bennett’s conception, but also propels the show with an energy as if it were brand new. Did I mention that all the choreography is original? Check out “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” Nicholaw leaves no doubt that DREAMGIRLS belongs among the best American musicals of all time. I mean, who’s going crazy over NINE 35 years later?
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