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When I First Saw You: Dreamgirls

All the snow in Buffalo would not keep me away from seeing the touring production of Dreamgirls now being hosted at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The original Broadway production of this high energy, exciting show is one of my fondest theatergoing experiences. The original production is on the same list of personal favorites as Broadway productions of Follies, Seesaw, Company and Promises, Promises, coincidentally or not, all shows staged or choreographed by our lantzman Michael Bennett.

With each successive show he helmed, Bennett demanded greater and greater artistic control of the entire project. If he did not have privilege as auteur, he would decline projects. Producers generally came around to see things his way.  Dreamgirls would be the last show he brought to Broadway before his early death. While one can imagine the shows he might have created if he were around today, with Dreamgirls we have one of the best shows to bear the Bennett hallmark, with due respect to the music of Henry Kreiger scored to Tom Eyen’s text.

Dreamgirls is a high-energy show about the highest highs and the most painful lows about the music business. It is an apochrophal retelling of the saga behind the Motown sound. The cast of this tour is certainly up to the challenge of the original material. They are young and electric… perhaps electric because they are so young. I’d wager that most of this cast are younger than the play itself.
Of course, there are significant differences in this current version when compared to the original production of thirty years ago. The interpretation is skewed toward post-Oprah, sister-girlfriend-ism. The music is shaped to accommodate the post-American-Idol ear, with outrageously extended sounds boomed to the back wall of the church. Speaking of American Idol, it is interesting that erstwhile judge Simon Cowell used the term “Broadway singer” to disparage contestants and that so many AI alums have found success in the casts of Broadway shows and tours.
Syesha Mercado, for example, who performed the role of Deena Jones at Shea’s on opening night. (Felicia Boswell takes over for the rest of the stand at Shea’s.). If you were a fan of hers during the televised competition ins Season 7, you will not be disappointed by her singing. Mercado also acts the role nicely, nicely shaping to the Deena’s progress from a shy amateur to pop goddess. As mentioned, the youth of the actresses playing the members of the Dreamettes, later the Dreams, but from the beginning makes them seem more vulnerable than cast of the original production. As a result, Mercado, Adrienne Warren (as Lorrell), Margaret Hoffman (as Michelle), and Moya Angela (as Effie) are more susceptible to the traps of show business and more in need of toughening to take them to the stories struggles.
Chester Gregory played James “Thunder” Early, kind of a cross between James Brown and Little Richard, with as much energy as those two men combined. His performance flooded over the very busy stage.
Ms. Angela’s big moment, of course, comes at the close of Act One when Effie sings “And I’m Telling You”. The audience responds here loudly and appreciatively… even in mid-song. This song has come to represent the entire show. There are other numbers written by Kreiger that mighta-coulda been popular given a different set of chances. “I Am Changing” is one. “When I First Saw You” is another, and a personal favorite. In the context of the play it is sung with a duplicetous motive but it is as sweepingly romantic as any song in musical theater, from Puccini opera to Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The only match I can think of is Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” or “You Should Be Loved”, also by Mr. Kreiger, from Side Show.
Kreiger’s best accomplishment, perhaps, is that so many of the songs intended to be Motown-like hits sound as if the could have made the Billboard charts. There are several tunes sung by The Dreams which could very well have been sung by The Supremes. “One Night Only” is a creditable disco number.
The tour’s production elements are overwhelming. Visually, the show is all about the light. Ken Billington’s plot works overtime not only illuminating the action but helping to sculpt mood. All other visual elements conspire in providing shine. There are enough sequins and rhinestones on stage to reflect megawatts of light back into the audience. The set glows like Times Square.
Scores of wigs by Paul Huntley and hundreds of costumes by William Ivey Long convey the looks of the 60s and 70s, as music changed from R&B, to pop, to disco. Scenery for the tour is designed by Robin Wagner who designed the original. Then, Wagner used five mobile light towers which not only lit the stage but, when shifted to various configurations suggested different locations across time and place.
Though more complicated, the current set is as efficient. Five panels material, each as high as the stage arch and side-by-side spanning its width, also configure for space shaping purpsoses. The panels are faced with LDC material which are programmed to make walls of light, sometimes creating walls as colored backdrops, sometimes as photographed cityscapes and even as moving video image.
If one has to identify a flaw it is that there has been a considerable amount of additional material, script and songs,inserted throughout this new production. Quality of the new stuff is not the issue. The original was a whirlwind experience and a viewer was swept up with the tide along with the characters. The added scenes tend to explain the characters and wind up being redundant. However the original sleeker narrative moved like a meteor through space. The current script cannot help but be brisk trip up and down over hill and dale. Robert Longbottom’s staging is smart none the less. He has an eye for, and frames with understanding, some of the more tender moments in this story with skill.
All told, Dreamgirls remains engaging and effecting. This same production actually originated in Korea with an all Korean cast. After the US schedule ends next week, the show will be staged (with a new cast) in South Africa. You can’t keep a good show down. And I’ll look forward to the fiftieth anniversary production of Dreamgirls when the original script is restored.
Who might like Dreamgirls: I can’t imagine anyone up for a night of fun at the theater not able to enjoy this. Well, I can imagine County Executive not approving this show. And, by automatic extension, Legislators Dixon, Fudoli, Hardwick, Mills, Walter and Rath III would not either. But other than that…
Dreamgirls (through December 19) Touring production of the Tom Eyen / Henry Kreiger / Michael Bennett musical. Directed by Robert Longbottom presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino; at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street; or 1-800-745-3000.
Photo: Family For Now: In the Dreams’ dressing room, before ambition swamps loyalty we see Chaz Lamar Shepherd (Curtis), Syesha Mercado (Deena), Adrienne Warren (Lorrell), Moya Angela (Effie), Chester Gregory (James Early), Trevon Davis (C.C.).


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