by Kevin Shaw | photos courtesy of Playhouse on the Square
A few years ago, Playhouse on the Square opened their state of the art new theatre across the street from their old theatre. When I first walked into the space, it was immediately clear that the audience would be up close and personal to the stage and, from what I could tell, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Over the years, I’ve sat in multiple seats in multiple parts of the theatre (including the balcony) and marveled at how amazing my view always was, that is, until this past weekend when I attended Dreamgirls, the powerhouse, freight train-of-a-musical now showing through July 15th. In an effort to see if even the “worst seat in the house” still offered an enjoyable viewing experience, I chose to sit in seat A1—front row in the far corner. Although, this seat has the distinction of being the first letter AND the first number in the alphabet, it is, without a doubt, the last seat you’d ever want to sit in in this pristine theatre. I do, of course, realize that creating a set, choreography, blocking, etc. that creates the best possible visuals for every single person in every seat in the house is nearly impossible, I was, however, shocked at how bad this seat could actually be. Yes, I wasn’t totally surprised that I saw just as much going on backstage as was onstage (I’m certain the actors and crew have heard over and over again the standard theatre admonition, “If you are standing backstage and can see the audience, they can see you,” but that didn’t seem to matter to several of the crew and cast members) and yes, I was willing to wrestle with looking through scaffolding and a staircase to only see about half of the stage, but I have never in my life had to look literally straight up in the air (back of my head parallel to the floor) and only see up actresses’ skirts. I was pretty certain that the actors high up on that scaffolding were talking, but I had no idea who they were since all I could see were their undergarments. I uncomfortably thought to myself, “Well, thank God, they’re wearing undergarments and…maybe they should put their character’s names on their underwear so I can know who’s talking…maybe?” In many ways, I saw a lot less than the rest of the audience, but in some ways, I saw (ahem) a lot more. Still, from my vantage point, Playhouse on the Square’s Dreamgirls is a show worth seeing (any way you can).
Opening on Broadway in 1981 and directed by Broadway legend Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), Dreamgirls chronicles the challenges and experiences of being an African-American singer in 1960’s America trying to break out in a predominantly all-white, all-male dominated music industry. With very clear references to such acts as The Supremes and James Brown, the musical is a reminder of just how difficult it was back then (and still is) for a minority artist (especially female) to make a name for themselves without being used and abused. It’s a fascinating look at an industry that is known for chewing people up and spitting them out. With such iconic songs as “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and “One Night Only,” it’s easy to forget that this is almost a completely “sung through” musical that relies on much of its narrative through song. In fact, if you’re not prepared, this show which comes at you like gangbusters, will bowl you over and leave you in the dirt before the end of the opening number. There’s a lot to cover quickly and this show grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go (in a good way).
Under the co-direction and co-choreography of real-life partners Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley, Dreamgirls is all you could hope for. The impressive duo has assembled a large, enormously gifted group of performers who are all a glaring reminder of how many talented African-American artists this city has just waiting for more roles to come their way. The entire cast comes out swinging as if they were in a 15-round boxing match—it’s a physical test of endurance and everyone seems up for the challenge. Nichols and Bradley have created an enormous amount of challenging choreography and the performers seem to relish the demands. They’re clearly hungry and, for that, the audience is filled. It’s not until the end though, that the breakneck speed of it all begins to show possible signs of redundancy for no other reason perhaps than the sheer volume of content. Again, it’s an avalanche of entertainment.
Specifically, this story chronicles the rise of a female singing trio from talent competition, to backup singers for a James Brown-like act, to being one of America’s hottest groups (The Dreams) and the internal squabbling involved. It’s an ensemble piece with a few standout characters. Perhaps no other role in the American musical catalogue carries a higher audience expectation than that of Effie White made famous by the “Jennifers” (Holliday and Hudson) because of having to sing what is arguably the most powerful song in musical theatre history, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” This Playhouse production not only found the right performer to carry the role in Breyannah Tillman, but found someone who was brave enough and capable enough to take this mammoth song and make it her own. She nails the song with enough variations to still blow you away without the overkill. Similarly, her rendition of “I Am Changing” in Act II (with some visual help from costume designer, Kathleen R. Kovarik) provides even more credence to her vocal abilities (is it possible to have an endless octave range?). Tillman convincingly portrays a woman scorned who makes it on her own anyway. Coming in a close second in performance for reasons other than just vocal ability is Napolean M. Douglas as the James Brown-like character, Jimmy Early. In comparison to all the other Jimmy Early’s I’ve seen throughout the years (including Eddie Murphy in the movie version), Douglas is simply the best. His fearless take as the artist who put the funk in funky practically steals the show. He takes his outlandish character to the very edge of overindulgence and masterfully pulls him back just in time over and over again. Jarrad Baker, as the artists’ manager, Curtis Taylor is a very fine actor/singer. He expertly portrays the businessman trumping the “show” people in the cold-hearted world of “show business.” Cordell Turner does excellent work as Effie’s brother, CC and Curtis C. Jackson’s astutely tries to keep things from falling apart all around him as manager, Marty. In either a stroke of genius or coincidence, the other women who make up The Dreams are more fittingly “backup singers” to Tillman’s Effie. As Deena, Latisha E. Henderson’s protestation of not being able to pull off the “lead” singer role compared to Effie rings true. Henderson is a wonderful singer in her own right, but doesn’t wear the lead moniker as comfortably as Effie. Zan Edwards as Lorrell and Tiffany M. Williams as the “Effie replacement,” Michelle, are also quality performers who look and sound the part, but don’t quite equal Tillman vocally or in stature (Again, in this show about kicking out the lead, it all works just as it should).
Technically, the show perfectly has the look and feel of an early 1970’s television variety show (chasing lightbulbs and all). Ryan Howell’s scenic design utilizes sliding flats and borders that smartly keep things moving while allowing for the audience’s imagination to integrate multiple locales. Kathleen R. Kovarik’s costume design effectively captures the period and nicely compliments Howell’s “glittery” glamour-filled moments. Nathan McHenry’s orchestra elevates all things with its powerful, crisp sound. What a joy it is to hear real trumpets and trombones (kids, look it up) in an orchestra pit again.
Dreamgirls is not a perfect show. The musical tries to cram too much in too quickly. It struggles between being a show about the musical history of African-Americans in the late 60’s versus the personal details of many of the characters involved, all while being peppered with fast-moving songs involving even faster-moving choreography. It’s fun, but a whirlwind to watch. The well-known, iconic musical moments all satisfy and you’ll leave knowing you certainly got your money’s worth. But, again, it’s a lot to take in. I can only imagine what it must be like to see the whole thing…
Now through July 15th