Glitzy show-biz story brings Broadway to Richmond

Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed and choreographed by Tim French
Music direction by Andrew Craig
Grand Theatre, London
April 14 to May 9, 2009

Live! On Stage!
Review by Mary Alderson

Everyone enjoys a rags-to-riches story, and I confess to having a penchant for a tale about show business. Among my favourite musicals are Gypsy, the story of the classy stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story, which are both show biz stories. Dreamgirls, now on stage at London’s Grand Theatre, is another brilliant example, going from rags to riches to rags in the competitive world of entertainment.
Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, Dreamgirls opens in the 60s with three young African-American women who are trying to win a talent show at the Apollo Theatre. Lead singer Effie is plus-sized with a powerful voice, and vows she’ll never be a back-up singer. Effie is representative of Florence Ballard, the member of the Supremes who was kicked out and died in poverty in Detroit at age 32. The Dreamgirls Deena, the Diana Ross character, is manipulated into the lead singer’s role by their manager, Curtis. A former Cadillac salesman, Curtis is modeled after Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. Deena Jones and the Dreams become international singing stars, among the first African-American girl groups whose recordings cross over and appeal to white audiences.
Act II is set in the 70s with spandex, bell-bottoms and the advent of disco, as Deena Jones continues to overshadow her back-up singers. In the meantime, Effie struggles as a single mother, trying to return to singing. It’s a great story, coming to a very moving conclusion.
The stage version of Dreamgirls, which opened on Broadway in 1981, seems to work even better than the 2006 movie version. The scenes where two characters sing dialogue to each other work much better on stage than they do in the movie.
Interestingly, the movie propelled American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson into superstardom for her portrayal of Effie, giving her an Oscar win. In the Grand Theatre’s version, Effie is played by Toya Alexis, a Canadian Idol contestant in 2003. Alexis is outstanding as Effie, playing the role much like Hudson’s movie version. Her show-stopping solo “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” had the opening night audience offering spontaneous applause before she was finished.
Jewelle Blackman is excellent as Deena, and Katrina Reynolds gives a funny and entertaining portrayal of Lorrell. Also very entertaining is Troy Adams as Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early, a James Brown–type soul singer. Anthony Sherwood gives a strong performance as the ousted manager Marty. Sherwood will be familiar from his years on TV’s Street Legal.
In all, a very strong cast of 20 makes up this excellent production. Congratulations to two newcomers to the stage: Allison Edwards-Crewe who plays Michelle and becomes a dream girl when Effie is kicked out, and Andrew Broderick, both of whom are recent graduates of Sheridan College. Kudos to three London high school students, Matthew Fuller, Imogen Wasse and Abbey Yerema, for their intriguing cameo appearance.
The costumes are outstanding – colourful, glamorous and larger than life – from the giant Afro wigs to the sequinned gowns and the Las Vegas showgirls. The simple set works well: sometimes the audience is seeing the characters as they perform on stage, other times the audience is privy to the backstage action.
Director/Choreographer Tim French has created a memorable show, while Musical Director Andrew Craig has taken a score created in the 1980s and given it a true 60s and 70s sound, very reminiscent of Motown music, for those of us who grew up listening to the Big 8 CKLW.
Dreamgirls brings the glitz of Broadway to London – it’s a fascinating story, with powerful music and a solid cast making it a top-quality production. It is also a great nostalgia trip, offering an inside look at the days when Motown music took over the pop charts, along with drama in the personal lives of those involved.
Dreamgirls continues at the Grand Theatre in London until May 9. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

Mary Alderson offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently employed with the Ontario Association of Community Futures Development Corporations.