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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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