This Village offering is dynamic, solidly performed and polished to a high sheen, writes critic Misha Berson. The show runs through July 2 in Issaquah and July 7-30 in Everett.
“Dreamgirls” gets few professional regional theater productions. The last one, if memory serves, was at 5th Avenue Theatre over a decade ago.
So Village Theatre merits kudos just for programming this crowd-pleasing saga of a black female singing trio’s rise to success, and the moral compromises and heartbreaks that follow. The show (made into an Oscar-winning 2006 film) demands a large, mostly African-American cast; powerhouse voices to handle a hefty score; and an approach that captures the still-stirring musical high points while overriding some tired star-is-born clichés in Tom Eyen’s book and lyrics.
Director Steve Tomkins doesn’t minimize the platitudes, but this Village offering is dynamic, solidly performed and polished to a high sheen. Broadway veteran Angela Birchett belts her numbers through the roof as Effie, the lead-singer-then-pariah of the fictional Dreamettes trio.
Through July 2 at Village Theatre, Issaquah; $50-$78 (425-392-2202 or villagetheatre.org).
Note: The show continues July 7-30 at Everett Performing Arts Center; (425-257-8600)
And new Seattle resident Nathaniel Tenebaum could be charged with grand larceny for his scene-stealing antics as the lusty R&B shouter James “Thunder” Early, an irrepressible scamp and fire-powered singer. In Tenebaum’s hands he’s a mix of James Brown, Little Richard and the jiving genie in “Aladdin.”
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In “Dreamgirls,” Effie falls for the seductive, manipulative Dreamettes manager Curtis (a commanding John Devereaux, who has toured in the show). But just as the Dreamettes are gaining fans, Curtis demotes feisty, plump Effie to background singer and hands the star spot to the more svelte, photogenic and pliable group member Deena (Lauren Du Pree).
The main creators of “Dreamgirls” — director Michael Bennett, composer Henry Krieger and Eyen — denied the show was based on Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. and his famed trio the Supremes. But some parallels are undeniable. Like Curtis, Gordy cunningly produced and marketed soul music with mass appeal for white listeners as well as black — a crossover success that rugged rhythm and blues never achieved. Gordy also promoted his lover Diana Ross to lead singer of the Supremes, shutting out group-mate Florence Ballard, who fell into poverty and addiction and died young. (Effie’s future looks rosier.)
With the central love triangle, and less-interesting affair between Early and the third Dreamette, Lorrell (Alexandria Henderson), “Dreamgirls” offers a broad critique of the music industry. It decries the bribes paid to disc jockeys for radio play, the pandering to a mainstream audience, the craven ambition and broken personal loyalties that TV’s contemporary “Empire” also tunes into. It also touches on the struggles of 1960s black artists and entrepreneurs to achieve rewards and recognition equal to those of whites.
The tune “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” inventively tracks the ruthlessness end of the biz. The extended segment seamlessly morphs from shadowy Devil’s pact into ensemble dance number, and finally a bland cover of the song by a white singing group.
Tomkins employs some of Bennett’s innovative directorial choices, notably onstage lighting towers to frame and illuminate the action. The 2 ½ hour production flows and pops along, but Daniel Cruz’s pedestrian choreography disappoints — as does some stage-y acting. Also, Du Pree’s gradual drift into strident oversinging is inconsistent with the sleeker, “more commercial” image Curtis has crafted for Deena.
Though nearly wrung dry by “American Idol” contestants, Effie’s showstopper solo “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going” remains the emotional apex of “Dreamgirls.” Birchett does her best acting through singing, and her agonizing, soaring rendition is a tornado of rage, hurt and neediness.
The pit orchestra does right by Krieger’s wall-to-wall score. And Karen Ann Ledger’s fabulous Dreamettes costumes treat us to a fast-changing parade of eye-popping, form-fitting, floor-length evening gowns. They are embellished with enough shiny sequins, faux fur, chiffon and gold lamé to make even the Supremes jealous.