Effie White, played by the supremely hard-working Moya Angela in the national tour of Dreamgirls, is still “not going,” and she’s punching her fists in the air with rage and determination to drive this message home.
This emotionally-loaded number, which closes out the first act, received a standing ovation from over half the house the night I saw it, recognizing Angela as a star in the making — and adding to the many thrilling moments found in this first-rate production currently playing the Cadillac Palace.
Dreamgirls, which follows the trajectory of a girl group (a.k.a. The Supremes) during the rise of the R&B era, is the kind of show that faces high expectations. If you’re reading this review, you’ve most likely seen the award-winning, star-studded movie, or at least heard about Jennifer Hudson and her rise to fame. And then there’s the original Effie White, Jennifer Holliday, whose landmark performance of “And I Am Telling You” on the 1982 Tony Awards plays endlessly at gay video bars on Broadway night. In addition, Michael Bennett, who was instrumental in conceiving the show, invented the cinematic staging used in the 1982 production, which has inspired musicals like Jersey Boys.
This tour may not exceed these expectations, but that’s mostly because it’s taken a different approach. Director/choreographer Robert Longbottom has created a high-octane evening, built for the American Idol generation. Emotional underpinnings have been pushed aside for flash and fire. Show business is a cut-throat machine — this production seems to say — and there’s no time for tears.
From the moment that cow bell starts clanging, the show is off like a rocket, filled with giant, rotating LED panels used to convey rapid changes in space and time, an unending parade of glitzy William Ivey Long costumes, and remarkable vocal pyrotechnics delivered by an appealing young cast.
Oh, yes — the cast is fantastic. In addition to Angela, the other two Dreams fill their roles quite well. The cute and feisty Adrienne Warren gets her moment to show off her surprisingly big voice in the second act, delivering a heated F-off number to her deadbeat lover, and former Idol finalist Syesha Mercado as Diana Ross — oops, I mean Deena — effectively plays the star who longs for something more.
And, based on the two standing ovations he received on opening night, I’d be insane not to call out Chester Gregory, who outdoes himself as James “Thunder” Early. It’s a flashy role by design, but Gregory manages to take it over the top, and then some. And it works marvelously — the audience ate it up. Give this man a starring role in a show designed just for him — today.
But as buoyant as this show is, there are still a few snags along the way. Act two has always been a downer — Effie is out of the main action, having been bought out of The Dreams and replaced by a more marketable singer, and the show becomes emotionally laden, filled with old-school power ballads. Longbottom and team have done far too much tinkering in their attempts to solve this. For example, the big production number that originally opened the second half has been ineffectively replaced, and “Listen,” the song Beyoncé introduced in the movie version, is now inserted in the second to last scene as a power duet between Effie and Deena. These changes do nothing but make the act drag even more.
And Ken Billington should be punished for his headache-inducing lighting design by having a thousand-watt Maglite shined in his eye repeatedly for several seconds at a time. Why lighting designers think it’s acceptable to blind their audiences is beyond me. Keep the spotlights pointed at the stage, for goodness’ sake.
Whew! Felt good to get that off my chest.
However, please know that this production is well worth your time and money — but you only get a little over a week, as the tour concludes its run at the Cadillac Palace on Jan. 31. Why Broadway in Chicago lets these fantastic productions come and go so quickly is beyond me. So hurry and get your tickets.
Dreamgirls plays at the Cadillac Palace through Jan. 31. For more information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com