In advance of the long-awaited West End premiere of Dreamgirls, show-runners released a four-minute video recording that has immediately turned the upcoming production of the American musical theatre classic into the most anticipated show of London’s 2016-2017 season. Slated for production at the Savoy Theatre, Amber Riley will star as full-figured prima donna Effie Melody White, joining the likes of Ibinabo Jack (last seen in The Bodyguard on the West End) as Lorrell Robinson and Liisi LaFontaine as Deena Jones, completing the soulful R&B trio “The Dreams,” based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes.
In the video feature, actress-singer Amber Riley is joined by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten!, Spamalot) in a rehearsal studio to discuss the joys and challenges of introducing Dreamgirls to the British public. In the clip, the Tony-winning director and award-winning belter chatted about Riley playing her dream role upon receiving the part of Effie White before the singer performed a rendition of the 11 o’clock number “I Am Changing,” which has become somewhat of a Broadway musical standard.
One of the many trials and tribulations for Riley, she admits, was playing an adult role for the first time on stage, clarifying that she has played a high school student for most of her career.
“Vocally it’s challenging, emotionally it’s challenging,” Riley clarifies. “I played a teenager for such a long time and even though she is young in the beginning, she has this full arch. There’s this full evolution that happens for this character and I haven’t really got to experience that.”
Riley, 30, is best known for her portrayal of “dynamic diva-in-training” Mercedes Jones on the Fox high school musical comedy-drama series phenomenon “Glee,” for which she won a Screen Actors Guild Award, and was the victor of the 17th season of “Dancing with the Stars.” Last fall, under the direction of Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, the actress received praise for her portrayal of Addaperle, The Good Witch Of The North, in the NBC televised musical special, “The Wiz Live!” Riley was last seen in a brief cameo as Todrick Hall’s mother in the star-studded visual album Straight Outta Oz, which was released on Youtube in June. Playing the iconic role of Effie, Riley confesses that she is feeling the enormous pressure.
For good reason, Riley has a lot to fear in taking the role. When the original production of Dreamgirls premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre in 1981, it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning six. Spinto soprano gospel singer Jennifer Holliday would go on to win the 1982 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for the part. In addition to the show winning Best Cast Show Album at 1983 Grammy Awards, Holliday scored a #1 single on the Billboard R&B with the act-one closing ballad, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and she eventually took home the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Since Holliday’s reign on Broadway, many other iconic divas have gone on to play the part. Roz Ryan, who understudied Holliday, replaced the singer in the original Broadway cast before going on tour with it in 1997. Tony winner Lillias White originated the role for the 1987 Broadway revival and reprised the part for the 20th Anniversary Benefit Concert in 2001. R&B legend Phyllis Hyman and singer Cheryl Gaines were both considered as replacements for Holliday, while a young Jenifer Lewis led two “mildly successful” workshops before Holliday finally accepted the role that would change her life. When the musical was adapted for the silver screen in 2006, it became the most expensive film to feature an all African American starring cast in American cinema history, with dramatic soprano Jennifer Hudson gaining universal acclaim. Hudson would go on to earn the Academy Award, the Golden Globe Award, the BAFTA Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a NAACP Image Award, BET Award, Black Reel Awards.
“The thing that excites me about Effie and this role is that it’s challenging,” Riley clarifies. “Being able to tell that story and being the first person to bring that to London… It’s never been done. I’m the first person to do it, so it’s an extreme amount of pressure, but it is wanted pressure. Pressure makes diamonds.”
Ruth Brown and Karen Mav will alternate the role of Effie White at performances when Amber Riley is not scheduled to perform. Completing the ensemble Nicholas Bailey will play Marty, Adam J. Bernard will play Jimmy Early, Tyrone Huntley will play C.C. White and Joe Aaron Reid will play Curtis Taylor Jr. The cast of Dreamgirls will also include Jocasta Almgill, Callum Aylott, Hugo Batista, Samara Casteallo, Chloe Chambers, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Joelle Dyson, Kimmy Edwards, Candace Furbert, Nathan Graham, Ashley Luke Lloyd, Gabriel Mokake, Abiola Ogunbiyi, Sean Parkins, Kirk Patterson, Ryan Reid, Rohan Richards, Noel Samuels, Durone Stokes and Tosh Wanogho-Maud.
The West End premiere of Dreamgirls will begin preview performances at the Savoy Theatre on November 19 with an opening on December 14. Full information on performance schedules and further casting will be updated on the official website Dreamgirlswestend.com.