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Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre, London, review: And, boy, does it hit the stage as if it means business

The West End premiere of ‘Dreamgirls’, starring ‘Glee’s’ Amber Riley, takes you on a supercharged journey with the fictional band The Dreams, loosely based on The Supremes

Paul Taylor
Thursday 15 December 2016 10:19 GMT
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Ibinabo Jack, Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley giving it all they’ve got
Ibinabo Jack, Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley giving it all they’ve got

Thirty-five years after it opened on Broadway and ten years after the movie adaptation was released, this celebrated show – with music by Henry Krieger and book and lyrics by Tom Eyen – at long last gets its West End premiere. And, boy, does it hit the stage as if it means business in Casey Nicholaw’s full-throttle, fast-moving blast of a production, which he also choreographed. By the intermission, I felt that retiring for a little lie-down in a darkened room might not be inappropriate. God knows how the cast – who certainly revivify that dog-eared cliché about giving “a hundred and ten per cent” of themselves – get through it once, let alone eight times a week, with such unflagging zest.

The musical follows the career of The Dreamettes, a black girl trio from Chicago, loosely based on The Supremes, who rise to fame and fortune during the 1960s. But not before their ambitious manager, Curtis Taylor Jr – a Detroit used car salesman turned Svengali – has renamed them The Dreams and replaced the ferociously talented and feisty Effie White as both lead singer and the lover in his bed with her backup colleague and childhood chum, Deena Jones. She’s a more svelte and malleable proposition, whose prettiness and smoother sound Curtis reckons is likelier to appeal to the cross-over audience and television-viewing record-buyers he’s determined to conquer.

It’s a powerful story of how music can sell its soul to avarice and about the artistic compromises forced on black composers and performers if they wanted to swim in the mainstream. Nicholaw’s production drives forward with captivating fluidity and wit as it takes us on a whirlwind trip through the group’s stylistic evolution, beginning at an Amateur Night talent contest in Harlem and ending with the group’s farewell concert twelve years later. Occasionally, you want to cry “Stop! in the name of love” in the hope that the piece will dig deeper into a particular character or situation. But the sense of constant transition is key to the show’s meaning as the various musical idioms jostle and jar with each other in the quest for – or recoil from – middle America’s approval. Deploying lighting towers that swivel, glittery string backdrops that flop down and swish, and inner proscenium arches beaded with light bulbs (Tim Hatley is the designer), the production charts the ascent to Las Vegas with a fleet niftiness. The choreography and the restless riot of costumes (Greg Barnes) are campily in-period. In this Darwinian sartorial world, it’s the survival of the spangliest. The dressers backstage deserve honorary Olympic golds for managing the many lightning changes of outfit, sometimes during the course of a single number.

The big draw is Amber Riley (of Glee fame) who gives a blazing powerhouse performance as Effie. Her rendition of the fabled First Act curtain belter “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, in which the rebellious Effie battles in vain not to be dismissed from the group and the manager’s bed, takes the roof off with Riley’s extraordinary melismatic howl of hurt and defiance, furious anguish and raw, naked need. The fans cheer her from her first entrance and respond during her numbers with almost proprietorial whoops as though she were an X Factor contestant playing up the vocal gymnastics rather than an actress laying bare her character’s painful emotional depths. It should be stressed, though, that Riley delivers the goods to this constituency – and then some.

A dramatic flaw, in my opinion, is the lack of nuance in the portrait of the dodgy Curtis (played by Joe Aaron Reid). Lest there be any confusion between himself and this fictional figure, Motown mogul Berry Gordy extracted an apology from the makers of the film version. He objected to what he saw as the implication that “a black man couldn’t build something like a Motown without being a crook”. You absolutely see where Curtis is coming from. He’s livid when “Cadillac Car”, the number that in their peppy rendition is drawing attention to the fledgling Dreamettes, is usurped, emasculated and turned into a Top Forty hit by a white group (Dave and the Sweethearts are trucked into view here in a tableau that is like a hilarious monument to frigid insipidity). Curtis is now determined to win, even if it involves resorting to the corrupt tactics (bribing disc jockeys etc) of the enemy. Thereafter, though, we don’t see enough of the cultural insecurities that have given rise to this single-minded vision, so disastrously inattentive to dreams that don’t tally with his. Curtis’s casualties are all vividly performed here. Adam J Bernard brings out the wicked raunch and desperate in Jimmy “Thunder” Early, the James Brown-like character who can’t fake the bland Perry Como persona that’s been foisted on him and eventually erupts mid-ballad, switching to a calamitous trouser-dropping R&B groove. Liisi LaFontaine is lovely as Deena, the wife he’s placed on a lonely, impossible pedestal and Tyrone Huntley is beautifully persuasive as Effie’s gifted song-writing brother, sweet of nature and honeyed of voice.

The score skilfully projects pop and rhythm and blues through a Broadway filter and lets you hear the difference between the manufactured and authentic self-expression. This West End premiere interpolates the song “Listen” but doesn’t follow the movie adaptation (through, say, the use of documentary news footage) in placing the struggle for racial equality in the music business within the context of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. The show is not quite wide or deep enough dramatically, in my view, to qualify as a great musical but this (ahem) supremely confident production provides, to be sure, a great night out.

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