Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Ebony Easter does beautifully as Effie White, the full-figured, full-throated young lady who gets the boot from a Supremes-like girl group just before Dreamgirls' remarkable act one closer. And Omega Jones is outstanding as James "Thunder" Early, an amalgam of several larger-than-life performers dating back to the baby boom's formative years. Ms. Easter's singing of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" reveals a lost little girl at the heart of a tough young woman, before building to the number's breathtaking finish. The evening explodes with showmanship, and Mr. Jones' dancing and singing alone are worth the price of admission.
The musical originally debuted in 1981, and that production went on to win six Tony Awards. The rollicking and sometimes vicious war between those first Dreamgirls producers after the Tony nominations were announced, and the backers of the original Nine (which eventually beat them in the voting for Best Musical), is vividly recounted in the book "Razzle Dazzle" by Michael Riedel. Tom Eyen wrote the libretto and lyrics for Dreamgirls, with music by Harry Krieger.
And the onstage battles here are just as vibrant as that Tony campaign ever got. In this new iteration, Abraham Shaw is both a fine actor and singer as Curtis, the group's manager, thrust into the seedy world of bribing disc jockeys. Ms. Easter's fellow Dreams, played by Eleanor Humphrey (as her rival Deena) and Tateonna Thompson (as Lorrell) are equally terrific. Diamon Lester is also strong playing Effie's svelte replacement, Michelle. But let's back up a minute to note that this long and lanky Deena is also unexpectedly warm and kind and decent (though she's generally thought to be based on the imperious Diana Ross), suddenly thrust into the role of lead singer. Ms. Humphrey's endearing performance warms up the story considerably, and updates the diva dynamic, humanizing Deena without sacrificing any of the drama.
Beyond the singing (which is ravishing) and the overall physical style (which is often delightful), and beyond the approximately 783 different costumes (which range from barely tolerable to extremely nice, thanks to the astoundingly dedicated costumer Julian King and his assistant Jennifer Blum-Tatara), what really defines Dreamgirls is the show's breakneck pace. Whole subtexts for scenes and characters seem to have been streamlined by the original director Michael Bennett and jammed-in on the fly, betwixt entrances and exits or between songs that are always either just ending or just beginning. So, while the show (set between 1962 and 1975) makes passing mention of logy white singers like Pat Boone and Perry Como, Dreamgirls' manic structure is a product of the vision of Mr. Bennett, brought to fruition in the heyday of the pounding club scene in the New York City of 1980 and '81.
But you've got to hand it to this mostly young cast, in a fast and furious play. Even though they often seem to be shouting to each other from passing trains, the emotions are real and solid, and the connections are always made. With its relentless tempo, it's almost as if the ghost of Michael Bennett were dueling with the formidable Mr. Been. In the Stray Dog production, we get the best of both men. And, with the help of music director Jennifer Buchheit, the rest comes out in passionate song. It's a thrilling kind of opera, with a powerful R&B heartbeat.
Dreamgirls, through April 20, 2019, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Notes for the first-time visitor: there's a guarded, lit parking lot is immediately north; and I sometimes take a chair pad to sit on, on top of the padded church pews.
Cast (in order of appearance):