Review: Dreamgirls (Porchlight Music Theatre)

| April 26, 2016

Donica Lynn, Candace C. Edwards and Katherine Thomas in Dreamgirls          
   
   
   
Dreamgirls

By Tom Eyen (book and lyrics)
    and Henry Krieger (music)
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru May 22  |  tix: $35-$51   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets   
    


    
  

A thrilling night of high-octane talent

  

Eric Lewis as Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music Theatre

    
Porchlight Music Theatre presents
    
Dreamgirls

Review by Catey Sullivan 

Measure for measure, Dreamgirls has more star turns in its first 15 minutes than many musicals have in their entirety. The show is a treasury of epic money notes and dramatic dialogue wrapped into a plot that travels the emotional spectrum from despair to rage to joy and back. Nobody in Dreamgirls is ever just fine or merely OK. These characters live on an emotional teeterboard that soars to ecstasy and plummets to agony, rarely landing anywhere in between. It’s a tricky business, directing Dreamgirls: You’ve got to bring big drama, without sailing off into camp.

Evan Tyrone Martin, Candace C. Edwards and  Donica Lynn in DreamgirlsDirector/choreographer Brenda Didier manages that balancing act well in Porchlight Music Theatre’s staging of Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger’s (composer) epic tuner. With music director Doug Peck and a high-octane cast, Didier shapes a show that captures the world of The Dreams, a Supremes-like group with a hit-making career spanning the heyday of Motown to the dawn of disco. The production isn’t problem- free: The book is more outline than nuanced story, the balance between the vocals and the orchestra is often way off and there’s a bit of blocking that interferes with what should be an unadulterated power ballad. But Dreamgirls is impressive nonetheless.

The show’s first 15 minutes set the bar higher than the C three up from Middle-C . The action unfurls during amateur night at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a kaleidoscopic parade of sounds and visuals bombarding the audience at breakneck pace. The cavalcade of talent includes smooth crooners in tuxes, harmonizing doo-op girls dressed to the tens and hard-charging rocker bluesmen. From the suave Little Albert and the Tru-Tones to the tight harmonies of the Stepp Sisters to the raucous energy of Tiny Joe Dixon, everybody on stage has their own unique sound, and less than 18 or so measures to prove it.

It’s not just killer music the packed opening scene has to nail. There are also important offstage-at-the-Apollo developments, as a clutch of shady, ambitious music execs (and would-be music execs) wheel and deal, rigging the talent contest and making plans for starry-eyed young women far too naïve to realize that their talent gives them agency.

Crucially, the opening scene introduces the audience to the story’s main players: Pelvic-swiveling soul daddy James “Jimmy” Thunder Early (Eric Lewis), fast-talking inspiring impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (Evan Tyrone Martin) and the radiant trio, the Dreamettes. Effie White (Donica Lynn) is the outspoken, stone-fox front woman. Deena Jones (Candace C. Edwards) and Lorrell Robinson (Katherine Thomas) are her quieter, more complaint back-up singers.

Katherine Thomas, and Eric Lewis in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music Theatre Donica Lynn and Gilbert Domally in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music TheatreCandace C. Edwards as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music Theatre Donica Lynn as Effie White in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music Theatre

The plot follows the Dreamettes from their teenage debut to their evolution into the hit-making Dreams. Their journey is fraught: Effie is shunted into the background along the way so that Curtis can turn the skinnier, more obedient Deena into a star. Lorrell takes up with Jimmy, despite the fact that he’s married. Curtis shows himself a natural conniver in a (show) business fraught with corruption, kickbacks and payola. Heartbreak, blackmail and plenty of sex are as common as Top 40 hits.

The primary problem with Dreamgirls lies in Eyen’s book. Musically, the show is rock solid. You simply cannot argue with numbers such as “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, “One Night Only,” and “Hard to Say Goodbye My Love.” But the plot that unfolds around and within that music is thin, as are most of the characters. Lorrell in particular doesn’t go much deeper than a glorified extra. (Ditto Michelle, who steps in to the Dreams line-up midway through.) Lorrell’s story is wholly consumed by her relationship with Jimmy Early – take him out of the show, and Lorrell’s got nothing to do but look pretty singing background oohs and ahhs.

While Deena Is the ostensible star of the Dreams, she too is primarily all flashy surface without substantive depth. Beyond a few weak protestations that she doesn’t want to be the lead singer of the Dreams, Deena doesn’t have much to say. Yes, she intermittently insists that she will make that movie she’s been repeatedly approached about. And yes, she has an 11th hour declaration of independence when she (finally) tells the manipulative, controlling Curtis where to go. It’s too late too little. The speech has the feel of something tacked on at the last minute because Eyen realized he couldn’t end the show with Deena still kowtowing to her abusive boyfriend/manager.

Effie fares much better, thanks in large part to the iconic “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “One Night Only.” Lynn has both the powerhouse pipes and the presence to make both numbers hers. But with the former, she’s hampered in the former by face-palmingly awful blocking. Didier has Lynn with her back to the audience for much of “And I Am Telling You…” Worse, the director has Effie and Curtis engaging in what looks like an awkward, contorted wrestling match during the song. Effie’s desperate, we get it. Expressing that desperation literally by having her claw and grasp at her man is overkill and it detracts from the pure, sonic power of Lynn’s formidable voice. That said, Lynn kills both numbers. She’s got a voice that could fill a stadium.

Donica Lynn, Candace C. Edwards and Katherine Thomas in Dreamgirls Kyrie Courter, Candace C. Edwards, Donica Lynn and Katherine Thomas in Dreamgirls

Unfortunately, Eyen’s book still lets Effie down. She gets more personality than Deena, Lorrell and Michelle, but she also more or less disappears from the story after “And I Am Telling You.” When she returns, the script only provides the faintest details about what she’s been through and how she’s been surviving. Lynn’s performance makes the most of things, but you’re still left wishing Eyen had made more of Effie.

Dreamgirls other gleaming star turn belongs to Lewis’ James Thunder Early. He’s got the enthusiastically sexified moves of Little Richard (watch for the death-drop – it is awesome) and a captivating voice that can go from snarl to simmer to howl to velvet in the space of a few grace notes. As Lewis leads the ensemble through “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” you all but see heat shimmers radiating over the stage. Their source is Lewis. Like Lynn, he commits with a vengeance and the results give the show blazing momentum.

As Curtis, Martin isn’t so successful, mostly because he’s miscast. Martin reads far too young for the role. That youthful aura isn’t a problem in the early scenes, but it blunts the ruthless edge Curtis reveals as the story progresses. Martin can do menacing and heartless, but both traits are undercut by the fact that he looks more like a sullen teenager than a cold-blooded businessman.

Didier’s large ensemble is on fire throughout, creating an atmosphere that’s electric. The group creates countless small but significant moments that enrich the show: When the Dreamettes pass another girl group backstage at the Apollo, the side-eye is so pronounced it looks like the ladies ought to be able to see around the corner and into the future. When Jimmy and Curtis and C.C. White (Gilbert Domally) talk about Elvis stealing “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton, you can hear a world of rage and resignation embedded in the conversation.

Eric Lewis, Candace C. Edwards, Donica Lynn, Katherine Thomas, Gilbert Domally, and Evan Tyrone Martin

Peck’s above-the-stage six-piece band sounds terrific. But it also frequently overpowers the singing. The volume imbalance between the band and the voices means some of the cast’s killer vocals get lost. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

Costume designer Bill Morey has his work cut out for him with the demands of the Decades-long fashion parade that’s crucial to Dreamgirls’ aesthetic. Morey skews toward bridal with some of his lighter-colored frocks, but on the whole, both the cut and the details of his clothes catch the iconic moments in style from the 1960s through the 1970s. (There’s a perplexing moment in the second act you might well wonder why Morey has sent Effie out wearing a table cloth pinned to her torso. Wait a moment.There’s a reason for the weirdly draped garment, and that reason shows Morey to be quite deft at turning a workday look into a high-glam night look.)

Flaws and all, Dreamgirls is worth the ticket price. You’ll feel the beat of the music in your bones, even with that troubled sound design. And watching Lynn and Lewis pour 1,000 percent into their award-worthy performances? That’s both a privilege and a thrill.

  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Dreamgirls continues through May 22nd at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays 1:30pm & 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $35-$51, and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org(Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)

The cast of Dreamgirls, Porchlight Music Theatre

Photos by Kelsey Jorissen


  

artists

cast

Eric Lewis (Jimmy Early), Donica Lynn (Effie Melody White), Candace C. Edwards (Deena Jones), Evan Tyrone Martin (Curtis Taylor Jr.), Katherine Thomas (Lorrell Robinson), Gilbert Domally (C.C. White), J. Michael Jones (Marty), Caleb Blaze (Cadillac Boy, stage manager), Michelle Bester (Stepp Sister, u/s Lorrell), Dawn Bless (Joann, u/s Effie ), Kyrie Courter (Michelle Morris, u/s Deena), Michael Ferraro (u/s Cadillac Boy, stage manager, Frank, security guard), Reneisha Jenkins (Stepp Sister, Dance Captain, u/s Michelle Morris), Jared Grant (Tiny Joe, Jerry, u/s Marty), Matthew Hunter (Frank, Security Guard, u/s C.C. White), Andrew Malone (Mr. Morgan), Trequon Tate (Little Albert, u/s James Early), Cherise Thomas (Charlene, u/s Joanne), Brian Nelson Jr. (Wayne, u/s Curtis Taylor Jr.),

orchestra

Doug Peck (conductor/piano), Cullen Bogan (guitar), Jake Saleh (bass), Larry Roberts Jr. (drums), Gregory Strauss (trumpet), Adam DeGroot (saxophone) .

behind the scenes

Brenda Didier (director, choreographer), Doug Peck (music director), Bill Morey (costume design), Jeff Kmiec, Greg Pinsoneault (co-scenic design), Robert Hornbostel (sound design), Denise Karczewski (lighting design), Sarah Gammage (stage manager), Mealah Heidenreich (properties design), Chris Pazdernik (asst. director), Chris Carter (associate choreographer), Aaron Shapiro (production manager), Michael Weber (artistic director), Jeannie Lukow (executive director), Kevin Barthel (wig design), Chad Hain (technical director), Matthew Nadler, Karla Malpica, Abigail Medrano, Laura Gray, Jennifer Thompson (asst. stage manager), Shawn Kronk (master electrician), Sarah Stephens (asst. master electrician), Sarah Stephens (scenic artist), Kate Setzer-Kamphausen (asst. costume design), Courtney Jones, Lynn Ziehe (costume construction), Shelby Brand (wardrobe supervisor), Keegan Bradac (sound board engineer), Kelsey Jorissen (photos)

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Category: 2016 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Musical, Porchlight Music Theatre, Stage 773, Video

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