Dreamgirls At Goodspeed Musicals
In 1981, when Dreamgirls debuted at the Imperial Theatre, it electrified Broadway – and me – thanks to a star-making turn by Jennifer Holliday and an eye-popping production orchestrated by director Michael Bennett with the aid of theatre design legends like Robin Wagner (sets), Theoni Aldredge (costumes), and especially lighting designer Tharon Musser. It was magical.
Truth be told, Dreamgirls was not without its flaws, the most noticeable of which is a weak second act. That was largely the result of Holliday’s demands that her role be beefed up. (Her character originally died at the end of Act One.) That a 20-year-old, unknown gospel-singer could bend the great Michael Bennett to her will speaks volumes about her immense talent!
As the memory of that production began to fade so did enthusiasm for the musical. It hasn’t been revived on Broadway in over 20 years, during a period in which Black theatre on Broadway in all its forms has flourished. I also find it telling that Dreamgirls didn’t make it to London’s West End until 2016.
If the musical is now undervalued, director Lili-Anne Brown’s current production at Goodspeed Musicals makes a persuasive case that Dreamgirls deserves a place of honor in the steady rotation of revivals of classic musicals. Take away the incomparable Holliday and all the Bennett razzle-dazzle and you will find a sturdy and entertaining, if flawed, tale of showbiz skullduggery, not to mention some terrific songs and roles that allow gifted performers to strut their stuff.
Dreamgirls is set in the 60s and 70s and tells the story of a girl group not too unlike the Supremes as they rise from obscurity to stardom and confront the unforgiving demands of “showbiz.” The Dreamettes – Effie (Trejah Bostic, in the Jennifer Holliday role), Deena (Ta-Tynisa Wilson, as the Diana Ross figure), and Lorell (Keirsten Hodgens) – are taken under the wing of a Svengali-like manager, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Evan Tyrone Martin) who guides them to the heights of R&B and, thanks to a liberal application of payola, becomes a towering force in the music business.
Their first break comes when Curtis hooks them up as backup singers to Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Mykal Kilgore), a James Brown-like screamer. But Curtis has higher ambitions for his proteges.
The emotional core of the show occurs when Curtis, seeking to move from the ghetto of R&B to the more lucrative and glamorous field of “pop,” decides to drop Effie, with whom he is romantically involved, from the act and replace her as lead singer with the more attractive – and svelte – Deena.
This occasions Dreamgirls’ signature number, “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going.” It was a tour de force for Holliday and, for a time at least, made her a household name. It makes for a killer Act One curtain.
In Act Two, Effie fades into obscurity until she reinvents herself as a solo act in a downmarket honky tonk in Chicago. Her number “I Am Changing” steadily climbs the charts, prompting Curtis to rip her off, much in the way White acts had appropriated Black hits (think Little Richard and Pat Boone).
Meanwhile, Deena is becoming increasingly unhappy as Curtis’s puppet. She wants to do movies and Curtis stands in her way. It seems only a matter of time before she achieves “agency,” to use a term that wasn’t coined when Dreamgirls debuted.
Curtis’s payola-fueled ploy seems to be working until Effie appears with a lawsuit ex machina and a threat to expose his tawdry pay-for-play history. It works. The sappy-happy ending in which the original trio reach a feel-good rapprochement seems unearned and at odds with the cynical tone of the rest of the show.
Flawed as the script might be, Goodspeed’s revival of Dreamgirls has much to recommend it, primarily the cast.
Saying that Trejah Bostic’s Effie can’t erase the memory of Jennifer Holliday is beside the point. Has anyone topped Ethel Merman? Or Barbra Striesand? Bostic is wonderful in the role.
As the Diana Ross stand-in, Deena, Ta-Tynisa Wilson is not only drop-dead gorgeous, she plays the part beautifully.
Mykal Kilgore damn near steals the show as Jimmy, a protean performer whose schtick, more fully rooted in a Black past, condemns him to oblivion in a pop world carefully designed to cater to White audiences. For his part, Evan Tyron Martin, with his lean and hungry look makes a splendidly evil Curtis. He’s a sort of Ike Turner without the fisticuffs, although his emotional abuse is every bit as brutal.
Of the creative team, costume designer Samantha C. Jones takes top honors with her absolutely historically accurate and witty costumes that take the company through a decade or more of changing styles. And in that vein a hat must be tipped in the direction of Earon Chew Nealey, who has marshaled what seems like hundreds of wigs to track the rise and fall of afros and other Black hairstyles across the years.
Arnel Sancianco has provided a deceptively simple unit set that serves admirably to transport us to the many locations called for in the script. Adam Honoré’s and Jason Lynch’s lighting design, which includes towers of circular fixtures at the back of the stage that are constantly changing in color and intensity, adds to the showbiz glamour. As always at Goodspeed, Jay Hilton has done yeoman’s service with the sound design.
Over the years, as Black theatre artists have staked a claim to their rightful place in the American theatre, some people have taken umbrage that what is seemingly a quintessentially “Black” story was written by White men; the music was by Henry Krieger and the book and lyrics by Off-Off Broadway darling Tom Eyen. And as mentioned before, the creative team that helped make the show a mega-hit was Wonder Bread White. Perhaps that’s a contributing factor to the neglect of the show on Broadway in recent decades.
In a program note, director Brown numbers herself among those who raise an eyebrow about the all-White genesis of Dreamgirls. She has addressed her concerns in that regard with an all-Black cast (the original had a number of White performers playing White characters in subsidiary roles) and an all-BIPOC creative team drawn from the black-box theaters of the Windy City, “a simple point-of-view shift” as she says that results in a “reclamation of this story.”
Aside from the occasional amusing absurdity – Black actors in garish blonde wigs pretending to be White performers – I found the self-conscious “Blackness” of the production beside the point. Despite the obvious differences in terms of size, budget, and what have you, both Bennett’s original and Brown’s more recent take on the material were equally successful in focusing on “the personal journeys in the story” and empowering Black performers to “say what we sound like, look like, feel like.”
Talent and theatrical artistry know no color.
Dreamgirls continues at Goodspeed Musicals through December 30, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Goodspeed website.
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