DREAMGIRLS

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _31st DEC.

December 17, 2022

images © Matt Crockett.

Given its four-decade age, there’s a notable timeliness and presence to Dreamgirls’ sobering undercurrents of control and coercion in the entertainment world. Beneath the admittedly dazzling glitz and bombast, its messages and themes of dreams as commodity, superstars as little more than assets, and indeed of sinister moguls and executives pulling the strings, are all depressingly relevant in the post-‘me too’ era of Weinsteins, Epsteins and co.

And yet, whilst Dreamgirls, loosely paralleled to the real life experiences of Diana Ross and the Supremes (the show’s Effie White being in the mould of original ‘jilted’ Supreme, Florence Ballard) shows, such patriarchal poison has been an issue spanning back to the days of Motown and before. Sure, it keeps its darker beats mostly confined to the realms of financial and domestic control (though markedly more physical than its filmic counterpart), but there’s no doubt its empowerment comes from its fabulous trio of female leads standing up to the toxic masculinity about them. Dreamgirls’ villain of the piece is treacherous Curtis Taylor Jr. (Christopher Gopaul in the performance reviewed), ambitious car salesman turned manager, who sweeps in to take control of the career – and fortunes – of raucous, soul-screamer Jimmy Early (an electric Brandon Lee Sears), and up-and-comers The Dreamettes, fronted by brassy but brilliant Effie (Sharlene Hector).

Casey Nicholaw’s vibrant, kinetic production pulls off a careful balancing act of keeping the story and characters front and centre, without skimping on the razzmatazz. Sure, some of the numbers feel a trifle perfunctory, such as early foreboder ‘Stepping To The Bad Side’ (further diluted by some wobbly choreography), but there are enough toe-tappers and earworms in there, and it all keeps moving (quite literally) at a brisk pace, keeping the Motown, soul and disco vibes pulsing through the show between the big ballads, which prove the real showstoppers of the piece. Nowhere is this more evident than in Act II’s ‘One Night Only’, where Effie’s attempt to crack the charts solo with a rousing belter that gets churned through Curtis’ pop machine into a soulless – yet undeniably catchy – disco anthem.

A Dream worth waiting for… – Despite first opening on Broadway back in December 1981 (an early ‘PlayBill’ for the Broadway Production pictured above), it took thirty-five years for ‘Dreamgirls’ to finally land on UK shores, with the West End Production, led by ‘Glee’‘s Amber Reilly on Olivier-winning form, opening in November 2016, where it ran for just over 2 years.

The UK tour functionally operates much like its 2016 West End predecessor, right down to the inclusion of new number ‘Listen’, added in here after its debut in the 2006 movie adaptation. There it served as a soul-searching solo for Beyoncé; here, it is shrewdly reworked as a late-game duet between Effie and former bandmate Deena (Natalie Kassanga), bringing some catharsis to their show-long arc of resentment, replacement and rivalry in love.

A Dream worth waiting for… – Despite first opening on Broadway back in December 1981 (an early ‘PlayBill’ for the Broadway Production pictured above), it took thirty-five years for ‘Dreamgirls’ to finally land on UK shores, with the West End Production, led by ‘Glee’‘s Amber Reilly on Olivier-winning form, opening in November 2016, where it ran for just over 2 years.

It’s what makes Dreamgirls such a satisfying piece of musical theatre – its core identity of overcoming adversity and empowering oneself, rings out loud and proud, and yet it doesn’t shy away from having a good time in the process. It’s funny, not least of all courtesy of a brilliant comedic turn from Paige Peddie as quirky Lorrell, third of the Dreamettes who finds herself besotted – and equally frustrated – by married lothario Early. And Effie herself is a firecracker of sass, wit and sheer force of nature bombast, able to shut down a character (and scene) with a flick of her wrist or flash of a steely glare.

“…there are few moments in musical theatre as seminal and defining as the anthematic ‘And I Am Telling You’, which was breathtakingly delivered by Hector to that rare, yet deserved, of beasts – the mid-show standing ovation.”

She’s a heroine we root for, and alternate Effie, Sharlene Hector, brought a whirlwind of stage presence, blistering vocals and raw earnestness to the stage in the performance reviewed. She gets the best songs, but they’re also the biggest, most heartfelt sings, and there are few moments in musical theatre as seminal and defining as the anthematic ‘And I Am Telling You’, which was breathtakingly delivered by Hector to that rare, yet deserved, of beasts – the mid-show standing ovation. Never losing Effie’s journey or heartache for the sake of singing ‘pretty’, Hector dips masterfully between hushed gasps to megaton blasts of raw, searing anguish, delivering a masterclass in both character and vocals.

The only real gripe is that, in having such star wattage front and centre, some of the less impressive turns around Hector register a little underpowered. Everyone on stage is absolutely giving it their all – including a hard-working, tight ensemble and swing – but there are moments where the weaker links get laid a little bare, particularly in its second half. Curiously, the performance reviewed seemed to excise an entire number (‘I Miss You, Old Friend’) from the second Act, too. 

Overall though, this UK tour is a sparkling, oft-stunning, occasionally heartrending Cadillac ride through the highs and lows of the entertainment industry. With some of the biggest moments in musical theatre, most of which steered by a star-making turn from Charlene Hector (and, presumably, principle Effie, Nicole Raquel Dennis), and excellent supporting turns from Peddie and Lee Sears in particular, you’ll leave feeling uplifted, empowered and thoroughly entertained.

It isn’t hard to like Dreamgirls. Heck, as Effie soaringly croons at her lowest ebb, ‘you’re gonna love me’.

A regularly dazzling incarnation of a soaring musical. Much of it falls on the shoulders of its Effie, but in Hector’s powerhouse hands, it’s a bravura evening of theatre.

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