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Dreamgirls
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
April 4, 2019

Cast of Dreamgirls
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has been producing more large-cast shows in their relatively small space at Tower Grove Abbey lately. Its current production, Dreamgirls, is the latest example. A well-known Broadway show that’s also been made into an acclaimed movie, this is a big, glitzy and glamorous musical that adapts very well to the smaller venue at SDT. Especially, it serves as a showcase for some standout performances and impressive production values.

The original Broadway Dreamgirls and the movie are well-known for their music and for the performances of two famous Jennifers–Holliday (on stage) and Hudson (on screen)–as central character Effie White, the original lead singer for a Supremes-like singing group. Here, Effie is played by the excellent Ebony Easter, as the show traces Effie’s and her group’s path from obscurity to stardom. The Dreamettes–who later become the Dreams–start out as a group of three friends entering a talent contest at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Effie, along with her friends Deena Jones (Eleanor Humphrey) and Lorrell Robinson (Tateonna Thompson) are young a naive at first, embarking on a tour supporting R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Omega Jones), but encouraged by Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Marshall Jennings) and their highly ambitious car-salesman-turned manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Abraham Shaw), they soon learn more about the reality of show business, with its joys, triumphs, disappointments, and heartbreak in their personal and performing lives, also dealing with inherent racism in the music industry as Early and the Dreams aim to cross over from R&B to pop. The show is a deliberate evocation of the Motown sound, being basically a fictionalized tale of the rise of Motown and the Supremes in particular, with a memorable score featuring many highlights, including the title song, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, “One Night Only” and  Effie’s show-stopping “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing”.

The staging at SDT is, for the most part, excellent, reflective the glitzy and occasionally glamorous world of show business in the 60s and 70s, but also showing the realities of life backstage and offstage. Josh Smith’s glittery, red-and-gold two-level set is striking, as are Julian King’s detailed era-specific costumes, reflecting the evolving styles of the eras in which the show takes place as well as the Dreams’ growth in maturity and sophistication. There’s also sparkling lighting by Tyler Duenow and energetic choreography by Mike Hodges, along with an excellent–if a little too small for the sound–band ably led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The staging and pacing is good, for the most part, although there are occasionally some awkward scene transitions.

What especially stands out here is the excellent cast, and particularly the leading performances. Although the ensemble energy varies at times, there are some truly dynamic performances here, led by Easter who is in excellent voice as the determined Effie. Humphrey as rising-star Deena is also strong, and Thompson as Lorell is a particular standout. The always dynamic Jones puts in a dazzling performance as Early, as well.  Also notable are Jennings in a well-sung, highly likable performance as C.C. and Shaw in the difficult role as the highly ambitious but controlling and manipulative Curtis. The performance scenes especially are excellent, as an evocation of the 60s and 70s transitions between soul and R & B to pop, and eventually disco.

Dreamgirls is a fascinating show, with excellent songs and characters, and a real sense of history about it. At Stray Dog Theatre, this show is given a highly entertaining staging featuring some especially strong performances by an impressively talented cast. It’s a tuneful, poignant, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s another memorable musical from this theatre company.

Eleanor Humphrey, Marshall Jennings, Abraham Shaw, Tateonna Thompson, Omega Jones, Ebony Easter, Diamon Lester
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Dreamgirls at Tower Grove Abbey  until April 20, 2019

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Dreamgirls

Music by Henry Krieger, Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen, Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler

Directed by Robert Clater

Choreography by Leisa Kaye

The Muny, St. Louis

July 16, 2012

Wow! The Muny is pulling out all the stops this season, and the “newer, bigger, better” trend continues in a clear way here in their production of Dreamgirls. The classic Broadway show is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and what better way to mark that occasion than to put on a first-class production with a top-notch cast and the show’s original star in the role that made her famous.  I had been looking forward to seeing this production because I had never seen the stage version and I remember seeing Jennifer Holliday performing on the Tony Awards when I was a kid.  There was a lot of  buzz around this show in the St. Louis media, and this show more than lives up to the expectations.  It’s a spectacular production and more than worth braving the scorching St. Louis heat to experience.

The story begins backstage at New York’s famous Apollo Theatre, as a young girl group from Chicago, the Dreamettes, enter a talent contest hoping for their big break.  There they meet an ambitious car salesman named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Christopher Jackson) who has big dreams and will do basically anything to achieve them, who becomes their manager.  The story follows the Dreamettes (later the Dreams) and their lead singers Effie White (Holliday) and Deena Jones (Demetria McKinney) on their road from obscurity to stardom, and (for Effie) back again. The story echoes the story of the Supremes and the Motown era and conveys a clear sense of time and place.  It’s an impressive production based on the original Broadway staging, with sets to suggest the stages (and backstage areas) of various venues on the Dreams’ rise to the top of the music charts in the 1960s.   The clever staging of the performances seems to have been an influence on later musicals such as Jersey Boys as well.  The music, dancing, costumes and sets all worked together to create an authentic-seeming atmosphere, and the songs, while not authentic Motown numbers, definitely have that feel.  Several of the songs are used as transitions between various eras in the Dreams’ history, giving the sense that they are taking the audience along with them on their journey to success (and heartache) in the music industry.

The main question most people are asking about this show is “how is Jennifer Holliday?” Well, all I can say is that she still has it.  She’s 30 years older than she was when she opened on Broadway in this role, but she doesn’t seem it. The only area in which her age is evident is in her movement, especially when dancing with the younger performers playing the Dreams, but that’s a minor issue as her overall performance is excellent.  She holds her own and commands the stage whenever she’s on, but this isn’t a “showcase” performance and she doesn’t play it that way, and she is very convincing especially in the more emotional moments.  Her singing is simply astounding. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the acknowledged showstopper of this show, and her performance more than lives up to its reputation.  At the end, she drew a reaction I’ve never seen at the Muny before—a partial standing ovation (about half of the audience stood) for one song.   She was just as excellent and compelling on the rest of her songs—the highlight for me being the stirring “I Am Changing”.  I especially liked her scenes with Deena and C.C. (Tommar Wilson) in Act Two, and her portrayal of Effie’s growth as a character.

Still, despite Holliday’s excellent performance, this isn’t the Jennifer Holliday Show.  Having seen all the hype leading up the this production, I was concerned that the show would basically just be a vehicle for Holliday with less attention paid to the other cast members, and that was not the case at all. It’s a very strong cast with no weak links.  The three actresses playing the Dreams especially were outstanding.  As Deena Jones, the “Diana Ross” figure who takes over from Effie as the Dreams’ lead singer, McKinney is thoroughly convincing in her portrayal of the character’s growth from a naive young dreamer into a more confident, sophisticated superstar.  As Lorell, the third original Dreams member, Jenelle Lynn Randall gave a sympathetic performance and displayed a very powerful singing voice, and Karla Mosley was equally effective as Michelle, who replaces Effie as the third member of the group.  All of the Dreams work well together as a group, with strong, smooth vocals and good, well-synchronized dancing.  Jackson is very effective in the somewhat challenging role of Curtis, the Dreams’ manager who often resorts to less-than-honorable methods to achieve his goals for the group.  Jackson is convincingly smooth and charming at the beginning, and increasingly manipulative and controlling as the show progresses.  Jackson does a good job of making the character believable and multi-dimensional.  Wilson as Effie’s brother C.C., the group’s songwriter, is excellent as well, and Milton Craig Nealy is dynamic and alternately humorous and sympathetic as singer James “Thunder” Early.  Also making an impression is the always excellent Muny veteran Ken Page as Early’s (and later Effie’s) manager, Marty.

I was very impressed by this production and felt honored to witness it.  It’s another excellent entry in this inaugural season of the “next generation” Muny. I highly recommend seeing it for the overall quality of the whole show.  You may want to see it for Jennifer Holliday, and she doesn’t disappoint, but the whole cast, crew and creative team deserve kudos for this fine, thoroughly entertaining production.  If you’re anywhere near St. Louis this week, I highly recommend checking it out.

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