Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
I’m going out on a limb to predict your biggest questions and respond accordingly:
- 1. Her name is Moya Angela.
- 2. She nails it.
- Should you see it? Let’s get to that.
The Tony Award-winning sensation Dreamgirls has once again hit Southern California thanks to La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment.
Dreamgirls tells the story of a promising girl group and their 1960s dreams of stardom. They call themselves The Dreamettes and they’ve found their way from Chicago to Harlem to compete at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Vocal pipes, dance moves, matching wigs and gowns — check. Now they need someone to notice. No surprise, noticed they get and a chance they’re given.
Dreamgirls, though fictional, has more than a few similarities to the story of The Supremes (later becoming Diana Ross & the Supremes) and Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Yes, much await Effie, Deena and Lorrell that fateful night in New York City — show business (its rises and falls), fame, fortune, love and, of course, betrayal.
Since it first debuted on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls has won Tonys, Drama Desk Awards, Grammys and received a big screen adaptation starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson. Henry Krieger’s rhythm and blues score is lush and soulful — and his insertion of the sublime Listen (penned for the motion picture) into the stage show is a treat to us all. Likewise, Tom Eyen’s book and lyrics are rich and relevant, telling a cautionary, yet hopeful tale, of the tangled web of show business. It’s a big show with even bigger expectations, which makes it incredibly difficult to pull off. With direction by Robert Longbottom (inspired by Michael Bennett’s original Broadway stagings) and musical direction by Dennis Castellano, this La Mirada production, like its stars, dreams big.
First up, as mentioned at the top, The Dreamettes’ leading lady, Effie “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” White. It’s the role and song for which Dreamgirls is most famous and won Jennifer Holliday a Tony. It’s also the role and song — without drawing comparisons — Moya Angela knocks out of the damn park. But don’t take my word for it, Opening Night garnered standing ovations from countless theatergoers after the much-anticipated “MEEH-EEEEEEEEEEE!” roared us into Intermission. Angela brings a loud, mother-bear ferocity to the fiery diva whose tears and vulnerability are on full display when betrayal and heartbreak come knocking.
Which leads us to Curtis Taylor Jr., her manager and love interest (often viewed as real-life Berry Gordy, Jr.), played here by Scott A. People. The role of Curtis is pivotal. He has to entice and enslave with sex appeal and strength. If he doesn’t, the relationships and storylines involving him lack motivation and understanding. Unfortunately, People fails to bring this dominating magnetism essential to the role. While vocally-gifted, his overall performance is lukewarm, tepid, making the chemistry between him and his romantic co-stars unlikely. Thankfully, Angela overrides this “obstacle” and brings us the heart-on-the-floor Effie people want to see.
Jasmin Richardson is a delight as Deena Jones (the supposed Diana Ross character) and plays her arc naturally. From humble-yet-confident back-up singer, she emerges gradually, eventually embracing the “leading lady” status bequeathed her. Yet even with her Julia Roberts smile and dazzling elegance, one wonders whether Richardson’s Deena would have naturally become a star (or even wanted to) had prior circumstances been different or the role not been foisted on her from an outside source.
Brittney Johnson as Dream girl Lorrell Robinson is playful and spirited in Lorrell’s younger years, then commands the stage when Lorrell, no longer bright-eyed and innocent, takes charge of her own life path.
David LaMarr is utterly endearing as funk-brotha James “Thunder” Early. His finest moments emerge in true comic fashion when Jimmy’s R&B soul breaks free of the ivory shackles placed on him to appeal to a wider (i.e. whiter) audience.
John Devereaux brings beautiful vocals to Effie’s songwriting brother C.C., a less-pronounced, supporting character in a world of “Look at me, mister, I’m a star” types. His performance, however, comes across as a bit flat rather than meek or shy, and could benefit from specificity to add dimension and heart.
The remaining cast is overall quite excellent — not only vocally, but in their physicality as well.
Robert Longbottom and Shane Sparks’ choreography dazzles, from simple-yet-effective Motown moves, to big, flashy ensemble dance numbers.
William Ivey Long outdoes himself with exquisite costuming — an endless parade of gorgeous ensembles, giving us the sparkle, glitz and glam we desire. Joy Marcelle Langley’s hair, wig and make-up design is equally spectacular; her countless looks showcasing the evolution of style.
Dreamgirls’ set is bold and theatrical, thanks to Robin Wagner in conjunction with Howard Werner’s large-scale projections, moving us from the Apollo to recording studios to dressing rooms and stages across the country.
Ken Billington’s lighting is often stark and pronounced, as when carefully set spotlights illuminate bodies on an otherwise black stage. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is polished and dynamic.
Additional producers are Key Brand Entertainment with John Breglio.
In the mounting of a show with such high demands, it’s important to get so much right. Fortunately, La Mirada’s production scores more hits than misses. It’s a glorious, gratifying production, and one well-worth seeing.
As our beautiful ladies sing: “Dreamgirls will make you feel alright.”
And that, this Dreamgirls undoubtedly does.
And then some.
Now playing through April 17, 2016 in La Mirada. Additional performances in May at CSUN in Northridge at the Valley Performing Arts Center
Photo (above) by Michael Lamont: Brittney Johnson, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt star in the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts & McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of Dreamgirls.