“Dreamgirls is strengthened with pastiche and original music that emulate the raw but gorgeous sound of Motown-era music with passion and fire. This is the same passion and fire that ... saturate the Prince Music Theater production.”
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Due to positive notices and popular demand, the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, named for celebrated director Harold Prince, has extended its production of Dreamgirls three times. (The theater is the lone professional troupe in the United States with the rights to the musical in the wake of the upcoming film adaptation.) Commercial producers and investors are scouting the production, according to news sources, and, as a matter of fact, the production is amazing. Its performers and production team deserve commendation for sharing a rare gem of a musical with new audiences.
A veiled portrait of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dreamgirls follows the rise and fall of an all-female singing group, the Dreamettes, during the 1960s and 1970s. Under the management of a former car salesman, Curtis, the group sings behind an established singer before emerging on its own as the Dreams. In the face of burgeoning fame, Curtis replaces the fat and booming-voiced lead singer, Effie (read: Florence Ballard), with her sleek and sweet-voiced group member, Deena (read: Diana Ross), who embodies the growing standard of attractiveness America craved in chanteuses. Curtis replaces Effie in the bedroom with Deena as well.
At the core of Dreamgirls, however, is the anger Black musicians felt in having their music purloined and distributed with White musicians and aesthetics, and the struggle Black musicians faced in proving their merits as capable artists in the White-dominated popular music business. “If the big White man can make us think we need his Cadillac to make us feel as good as him,/then we can make him think he needs our music to make him feel as good as us,” Curtis sings. Thus, the driving force behind Dreamgirls is established, and the characters discover and unleash their individual talents and attacks onto the world.
From the sound of cowbells at the beginning of the production to the final strains of the title song at the end of Act II, Dreamgirls is strengthened with pastiche and original music that emulate the raw but gorgeous sound of Motown-era music with passion and fire. This is the same passion and fire that propel the characters into action and saturate the Prince Music Theater production.
For Dreamgirls, the first half of Act I is its strongest part, giving the viewer a keen sense of the characters and their establishment as forces with which White America will reckon. From the numbers “I’m Looking for Something” and “Goin’ Downtown” in the opening Apollo Theater montage to the numbers “Cadillac Car” and “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” characters are introduced and conflicts are presented in a fluid and seamless manner, leaving the viewer speechless. One of the several highlights is “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” Here, in one number, Curtis plans his ascension within popular music, and his song of struggle, hope, and frustration becomes the song that his act uses to cross into the mainstream. In the Prince Music Theater production, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” is staged in an orgasmic show of dazzling costumes and soaring voices, becoming an amazing visual and dramatic moment.
Dreamgirls is flawed, however, and this is what the viewer learns during the Prince Music Theater production through no fault of the performers and production team. Several conflicts in the musical are resolved with unbelievable and pat dénouements. In “It’s All Over,” for example,—what Frank Rich in 1981 called a cathartic number that realizes the clashing of seven characters in musical terms—Effie is dismissed from the Dreams, and her songwriter brother, C.C., shifts from defending her uncouth conduct in the scene preceding the number to indicting her during the number. His shift is unconvincing. In Act II, after achieving stardom at the expense of her former friend, Deena tells Effie she did not know Curtis was deceitful. Her confession is unconvincing.
What is interesting, Dreamgirls, written from a subjective viewpoint, implores the viewer to condemn the abuses Effie encounters during her rollercoaster ride of a singing career. However, its writers have not afforded the character substantive material that strikes an emotional chord with the viewer, and the actress in the role at the Prince Music Theater struggles to navigate her larger-than-life character. (In other words, she struggles not to succumb to the temptation of the music and reduce her performance to that of a belter, who, handed two well-known anthems, stands stage center and belts to the rafters.) Effie is difficult and her treatment from other characters is believable and justifiable. Despite the lack of redeeming qualities for her character, Dreamgirls is stirring and groundbreaking musical theater. When people reminisce about Dreamgirls, what strikes them is not its lack of character development but its abundance of excellent music. Since character development is deemphasized, what becomes important is production and music.
Dreamgirls was the pet project of deceased theater director Michael Bennett. He wanted to create an innovative (cinematic) method of theatermaking that eliminated lapses and blackouts in transitions between scenes. With Dreamgirls, he succeeded, and a number of his inventions are reproduced in the Prince Music Theater production. What remains salient, Dreamgirls is an echo of 1981, when Bennett, who directed Follies with Harold Prince in 1971 and directed A Chorus Line in 1975, improved theater, introducing directorial techniques still used in present times.
Director Richard M. Parison, Jr., exploring the darker aspects of the musical, has given special attention to the characters and the temptations of stardom that corrupt them. “When I First Saw You,” a non-threatening love song to the naïve listener, has become a struggle between a woman wanting to forfeit the music business to pursue personal interests (Deena) and a man using her as the canvas on which to paint his dreams (Curtis). Chaunteé Schuler gives a well-formed portrait of Deena, the sleek and sweet-voiced singer. Her performance is the strongest in the production, and her well-paced transition from withdrawn teenager to unparalleled woman is excellent.
Mercedes Ellington has done excellent work using period movement to make the production dance. However, the movement is superfluous at times, distracting the viewer from the genius of the musical, and is used as unneeded filler during transitions between certain scenes.
Todd Edward Ivins has designed settings and projections that—minimal—do not overpower the tone and drama of the musical but accentuate them. Mark Mariani has designed fabulous period costumes, including a dress Effie wears during “I Am Changing” that quotes the design Theoni V. Aldridge created for that number in the original production.
In short, the performers and production team have done excellent work with the material written. With tremendous skill, Parison has staged a fluid production that, leaving the viewer entertained, would have made Bennett proud. Before the Dreamgirls film is released in December, and before the start of March, when the Prince Music Theater production concludes, make the hour-long trip to Philadelphia to see an arresting production of the classic musical in a theater setting, where it was written to be performed.