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.
We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Playwright, educator, opera singer, and Queen, Mfoniso Udofia has two plays running at New York Theatre Workshop. *pause* TWO PLAYS. In the SAME season!?!? *ends congratulatory gasp* Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are performed in repertory, as two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle. Admittedly, before researching each show, I didn’t know the definition of either word; and in the spirit of keeping it consistent with the honesty, I didn’t like either play. I loved them.
Minimalism seems to be the name of the game these days. I sat down to a completely black stage, sans a multimedia display lodged on the ceiling at a 45-degree angle. Clutching my all white program and bobbing my head to the ‘70s pop rock pre-show music, I prepared my heart for the story of Sojourners, well at least that was the plan. The stage begins to rotate and we meet Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Nigerian expatriates sojourning in Houston, Texas with the plan to start a family, earn their degrees, and go back to Nigeria until life happens.
Charming and handsome, Ukpong becomes defined by his leather jacket, shoulder work and shimmy which match the fascination and yearning for freedom that illuminates his eyes every time he talks of peace, protest, and Prince–all shaping his view of 1970s America, and consequently, the American Dream. But does leather compensate for grit? Is a movement or vibe really a panacea for disappointment, aimlessness, and a need to find yourself? Abasiama enters the play pregnant, purposed, and outfitted in pieces of Nigerian garb, grounded in duty showing a stark contrast to Ukpong who floats in desire. What’s lost in your household is found elsewhere, and this is when we start to see, and root for, Abasiama’s transformation from timid to tenacious.
Enter Moxie (Lakisha May), a colorful prostitute turned protector and friend. There is a mutual respect despite great differences between her and Abasiama, with their love for one another creating moments that make you believe in the beauty of humanity. Enter Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another warm and determined hearted immigrant who has come to the United States to study, rounding out the timely additions of love, support, and security when Abasiama needed them the most.
Through and through this is Abasiama’s story and she glows. Her kindness, her sisterhood, her strength, her worthiness, and the realization of her American Dream, guide her decisions—which is the catalyst behind the entire Ufot Cycle.
Her “portmanteau”, or red suitcase, makes a return as 30 years have passed. Abasiama now has two daughters, one raised in America and the other who has come from Nigeria to reconnect with her family.
This is a good moment to mention that each story is informed by the other, but can certainly stand alone on substance, content, and the amazing direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. The staging is exciting and deliberate, while minimal, putting the full focus on the tension and growth to be expected of a family reunited after a substantial amount of time and distance.
Chinasa Ogbuagu returns to the stage, this time as the American-born daughter, Adiagha Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Ukpong and Abasiama’s daughter), and Jenny Jules as the mother, Abasiama Ufot.
Seated on a couch in Adiagha’s small New York Apartment, no amount of preparation readies your mind and spirit to form the words to make up for 30 years of life, connection, and memories missed. We’re taken on a ride of resentment, hurt, love, and forgiveness, as the portmanteau is literally unpacked. We watch the teeter-tottering between offense and defense as one sister tries to assimilate into American culture, and the other attempts, albeit stubbornly, to fall in formation in honoring a family she shares blood with, but little time or tangible history.
It’s powerful to see a story of history and continuing a legacy despite lost time, faulty promises, and difficult choices explored with an all-woman cast as far too often the idea of legacy is framed in patriarchy. Jules admirably takes Abasiama through the fire to heal, to feel, and to fix her family. The narrative allows us to empathize and understand the struggle that comes with upholding family values versus cultivating a space to achieve personal dreams and happiness.
Her Portmanteau (and Sojourners) is written in a way that finds your soul, gently massaging it with humor, while leaving it with very real questions. I’ve never felt a greater need to binge read nine stories and simultaneously study the story of my own family tree. I left changed. I left wrapped in the strength of my mom and my mom’s- mom’s sacrifice. I left pensive and with seeds of future forgiveness planted. I left changed.
For capturing our hearts with wit and with truth. For putting Black women at the center of a poignant narrative. For unapologetically telling a story you haven’t seen told and telling it in the way you want it to be told.
We thank you Mfoniso. We thank you.
Have you seen the #duetplays? Sound off in the comments below![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.
Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.
As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!
Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th!
Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.