Marisha Wallace (Effie White*), Lily Frazer (Deena Jones*), Jocasta Almgill (Lorrell Robinson*), Joe Aaron Reid (Curtis Taylor Jr.), Adam J. Bernard (Jimmy Early), Tyrone Huntley (C.C. White), Nicholas Bailey (Marty), Carly Mercedes Dyer (Michelle Morris*). Alternates/understudies denoted by an asterisk, more information here.
Dreamgirls is grounded in the American music scene of the 1960s. It follows a fictional girl group from audition to mainstream success and highlights the personal and musical sacrifices made to get there. At the start of the show, the group is made up of powerhouse vocalist Effie White (played by Marisha Wallace, London’s new alternate in the role) and backing singers Deena and Lorrell (also played by understudies the afternoon I was there). As soon as it’s clear that the group aren’t making waves in their current formation, the band’s astute manager Curtis (brought to life by Joe Aaron Reid) swaps Effie’s curves and formidable voice for Deena’s slimmer frame and more mediocre talent; in doing so he betrays Effie on both a professional and personal level (the pair had previously been ‘going steady’).
It’s in Effie’s disdain at this turn of events that the show begins to take flight. Indeed, act one culminates in the show-stopping, angsty number ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ after she finds out that all of her whining about her demotion has led to her being replaced entirely. Now, call me cynically business minded but by the end of act one, I was really starting to hate Effie as a character. Surely she can see that, given the climate of the music scene at the time, Curtis made a justifiable managerial decision that ultimately worked; surely her frustrations with the group and Deena are misplaced and why, if she’s so unhappy, does she want to stay part of the group anyway? It was all a bit ‘I want everything my own way’ and ended up making me have reservations about being on the side of the show’s main protagonist. None of this is a reflection on Marisha Wallace’s excellent performance. She played Effie’s comedic diva turns with a great deal of forceful grace and by heck can she sing.
Although I have frustrations with the character, Effie really is the driving force of the show; when not on stage her vibrancy is sorely missed and I really could have done without a lot of the extraneous noise the book creates around backing singer Lorrell’s relationship with another prominent star of the time Jimmy Early (portrayed by Adam J. Bernard). The plot also jumps through time at various points and glosses over issues that could have added emotional depth to the piece (I mean, a human child gets wistfully thrown into the proceedings). More disappointingly it never really gets to the crux of the racial issues of the time; instead opting for sparkly ‘on stage’ musical number again and again and again.
I assume a lot of people with tickets to Dreamgirls are there for the music and there is no doubt that it has its fair share of cracking numbers: ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’, ‘One Night Only’, ‘Listen’ and the title song, ‘Dreamgirls’, being particular highlights; but when considering the score as I whole I find that it doesn’t have much light and shade – everything is quite samey. It didn’t hit me emotionally and by the end, the overuse of vocal gymnastics was really starting to grate on my patience. I mean, the vocal tricks were executed brilliantly by most of the lead cast but when two actors are having to go big and put the full force of their bodies into a song that depicts what should be an emotionally meaningful reconciliation (yes I’m talking about ‘Listen’) there’s a kind of ‘meta’ feeling about the whole thing that really took me out of the moment.
Speaking of ‘light and shade’, this production went really big on the use of Swarovski crystals. The costumes are glitteringly divine and clever in the sense that they allow for some super quick costume changes. In contrast, I found the set to be a little bland. Yes it has more than its fair share of crystals and I know it’s hard when the entirety of the scenes either occur onstage or backstage but there is no detail to any of the set pieces in this production, they all create the same generic shiny space.
As a whole, I found Dreamgirls very superficial. While the musical numbers are very showy, executed well and likely to leave most theatregoers at least somewhat uplifted; the whole thing left me emotionally flat, guiltily wondering where exactly the majority of my £75 ticket had gone … probably on Swarovski crystals.
Overall, I give Dreamgirls a rating of 3/5.
Experience the vocal power of this production with the Original London Cast Recording*!