Dates chosen, flights booked and a journey across the sea to see what’s easily one of my top ten favorite musicals of all time, Dreamgirls, was on the horizon. Only seven agonizing months of playing the waiting game and I was on a red-eye to London before I knew it.
I knew the music. I watched Jennifer Holliday’s performance of “And I Am Telling You” on YouTube a million times in high school. I was first in line (and first row in the movie theatre) to see the film adaptation. I have the script, recordings, books, but NOTHING compared to seeing a live production of Dreamgirls and I didn’t regret a single moment.
The lights dimmed and four of the most gorgeous, chocolatey women emerged on stage in the most beautiful gowns (costume designs by Greg Barnes) crooning “I’m Looking For Something” and I could have passed out in my seat right there, but would have missed the next 2 hours of glitzy costumes, bejeweled set pieces, and dazzling lights (designed by Hugh Vanstone).
Even in the midst of all the glitz and glamor, the show belongs to Amber Riley. Playing the soulful lead singer Effie White, soon demoted to a backing vocalist, Riley proves she not only has the powerhouse voice that keeps ringing in your ears well after she sings that last “me”, but also the heart and soul Effie needs to remain a character we want to root for. I expect more than a few awards for Ms. Riley.
Image: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
It’s not a hard task as White, the stand-out talent in their small-town girl group, The Dreamettes, she’s the voice that gets them noticed by cunning “manager” Curtis Taylor, Jr. (the gorgeous Joe Aaron Reid). Originally backup singers for the soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (hilariously played Adam J. Bernard) — a solo artist with a knack for doing things his own way — Curtis’ plans for the Dreamettes extend beyond backup gigs, to mainstream success of their own. Meaning a new sound, a new look and a new name. Curtis bumps docile group member, Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine), to lead at Effie’s expense in order to appeal to the cross-over audience. Only Effie’s not really on board.
The dancing is incredible, namely during “Stepping To The Bad Side.” The trio of Curtis, Jimmy and Effie’s songwriter brother C.C (my new favorite Tyrone Huntley) is unmatched. I could listen to the three of them sing harmonies all day.
The West End premiere also includes “Listen”, the song sung by Beyoncé in the 2006 film, but instead sung here as a powerful duet between Effie and Deena. Listening to both LaFontaine and Riley sing that song together, your eyes are bound to get a little misty.
As expected, showstopper “And I Am Telling You”, brought audience members to tears and their feet, but I’d argue Riley’s take on “I Am Changing” was just as — if not more– of a powerful moment. A declaration of Effie coming to terms with her imperfections and her willingness to accept change is a theme relatable for many, myself included.
Under all the lights and glitter there’s still a message and story to tell, one of the flaws of assimilation and originality. While there are financial and social gains in appealing to the white gaze, they also come at the cost of one’s integrity and identity – of their soul — as Jimmy Early might say.
If you find yourself in London anytime soon, go see this show. If you can’t make the trip buy the cast recording when it’s released next month and if you’re like me hold out hope for a Broadway transfer soon.