Dreamgirls (Review)

Big voices and eye-popping technology make touring show a hit

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Dreams can lead to aspirations achieved or to high hopes crushed. They can be the source of creative genius or can motivate evil deeds. They can result in love or, when broken, be the source of despair.

Every one of those results is at play in the 1981 musical Dreamgirls, loosely based on the rise of The Supremes in the 1960s. A superb touring version of this show is onstage now at the Aronoff Center.

Too often touring shows cut corners. Not here. While this production doesn't have movie or TV stars in its key roles — it does offer an American Idol second runner-up, Syesha Mercado, as Deena, Dreamgirls’ Diana Ross counterpart — its cast is full of talented, veteran stage performers who can sing, dance and, above all, act.

Its organizers are aiming to land on Broadway early next year, and it’s easy to imagine this show being a significant contender for the 2011 Tony Award for best revival. Its scenic and lighting designs are innovative and spectacular. From start to finish, Dreamgirls offers Cincinnati audiences a full-fledged Broadway production.

I hope you’re not one of those folks who suggests that the 2006 movie was enough for you. It was an excellent, powerful piece of filmmaking, but this stage production of Dreamgirls is a forceful reminder of why live theater wins hands-down when it comes to evoking powerful emotion.

If you saw that film, you certainly remember another American Idol talent, Jennifer Hudson, in her star-making turn as Effie White, the singer pushed aside for more glamorous and marketable talent. That role made a name on Broadway nearly 30 years ago for Jennifer Holliday, who won a 1981 Tony Award.

On this tour, the performer to watch is Moya Angela (pictured above). When she bares her soul singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to finish the show’s first act, she unleashes some of the most powerful emotion you’re going to see onstage. Her performance evoked a spontaneous standing ovation — a rare feat at the Aronoff, where such responses predictably happen at the curtain call whether or not a show deserves it. Angela earns it, and Cincinnati audiences should remember her.

They should also remember Chester Gregory as James “Thunder” Early, the character inspired by James Brown. He has all the physical moves and vocal sass required of the role, and we watch his tragic spiral from fame (the “Dreamettes” are first recruited as his back-up singers) to failure as his manager tries to broaden his appeal. His onstage breakdowns evolve from funny to horrific. Chaz Lamar Shepherd is also memorable as Curtis Taylor Jr., the Dreams' manipulative manager.

This production also offers a lot of visual pleasure. Spectacular costumes (William Ivey Long) change constantly, and the lighting design (Ken Billington) is breathtaking. Five tall panels with grid-like surfaces span the stage from side-to-side and from the floor to the top of the proscenium. They're actually LED displays that provide video backdrops for London and Paris as the Dreams' worldwide fame expands, as well as urban environments and glitzy stage scenes for Miami and Vegas. They can elevate and turn for greater variety, offering a quick suggestion of backstage at the Apollo or a political convention.

Actual scenery is minimal and unnecessary. This is truly a 21st-century production that demonstrates using technology as a dynamic element to tell its story.

But Dreamgirls is ultimately a story of real, flawed people. We see, hear and feel their emotions, their triumphs and their failures. It’s a dream of a show.

DREAMGIRLS, presented by Broadway Across America, continues through June 20 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts downtown. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get theater details here.

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