DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - It’s not that Dreamgirls was going to disappear from the theater anytime soon. But the film version in 2006 introduced a new audience to the first big musical of the 1980s — and the songbook with the catchiest and most memorable soul/R&B/show tune fusion.
Of course, it’s not possible to equal a big budget movie’s flexibility to change locales, employ close-ups and unleash technical wizardry. But this traveling production of Dreamgirls, playing at Downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre through April 4, comes as close to nailing the “Wow!” factor as any recent musical with the possible exception of Dirty Dancing. It gets there thanks to Tom Eyen’s compelling book and lyrics, and Henry Krieger’s nearly endless string of wonderful songs.
Director Robert Longbottom, expanding on the original 1981 direction and choreography of the late Michael Bennett, appears to have opted for the “more is better” edict. Setting aside a couple of minor excesses, his instinct proves correct.
A cast of belting divas with acting range to match — and a scene-stealing Chester Gregory — share the stage with five high-tech LED panels and enough costumes to fill a warehouse. The result is in an entertainment blitz that rarely takes a breath for two-and-three-quarter hours.
Longbottom hits the gas the second the lights go down, which is key to getting the exposition out of the way early, so the real action can begin. In those first minutes, set during a talent show at New York’s famed Apollo Theatre in 1962, we meet the Dreamettes. There’s sweet, funny Lorrell (Adrienne Warren), radiant Deena (Syesha Mercado, the third-place finisher in season seven of “American Idol”), and the lead singer of the group, hot-tempered Effie (Moya Angela).
The Dreamettes don’t win the contest, performing the toe-tapping “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart),” written by Effie’s bother C.C. (Trevon Davis). But Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), a shrewd Cadillac dealer, wrangles his way into the girls’ lives as their manager by grabbing them a spot as backup singers on tour with soul legend James “Thunder” Early (Gregory).
Those who know the story recognize the similarities to the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes (the show’s creators still deny this), with Deena — the group’s breakout star — in the Ross role.
It is impossible to discuss Longbottom’s revival without highlighting the LED panels. The quintet of floor-to-ceiling pieces are capable of moving in several directions while projecting locations and various videos of the singer. They provide an instant barrier between the characters’ backstage and onstage worlds, and add to the feel of the ’60s and ’70s. The best use of the panels comes in the simulated telecasts of the Dreams — the group’s revised name — as the larger-than-life visuals of the Technicolor costumes wash across the theater.
No one will soon forget these costumes, created by William Ivey Long and spanning the latest fashions over a 13-year period. The Dreams and company change outfits so quickly at times that it’s hard not to imagine the barely controlled chaos in the wings.
Glitz and glamour are fun, but Dreamgirls remains a showcase for big voices, and there are several in this production. Angela carries the heaviest load as Effie, and she generally makes the part her own, which is no easy task. Her high points are the soulful “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only.” While she overreached a bit vocally on the first-act closer, her version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” contained the requisite raw emotion and power. It may not make anyone forget the original Jennifer Holliday version, but so far no performer has been able to accomplish that, including Jennifer Hudson in the film.
Mercado’s smooth tones as Deena are ideal for the later Dreams numbers, while she gets to show off her pipes in “Listen,” which was incorporated from the film version. Warren also shines, particularly in Lorrell’s big number “Ain’t No Party.”
But it’s Gregory, as “Thunder” Early, who makes the most of every vocal, dramatic and comedic moment. Gregory, best-known for his titular performance in The Jackie Wilson Story, dances with the ferocity of Wilson, while showing comedic timing reminiscent of Morris Day in the movie Purple Rain. His suggestive gyrations and ability to get a laugh with a pouty look or an elongated word elevates the material.
Yes, there a few missteps. The new second act opener, “What Love Can Do,” fleshes out the story but adds little musically. The costume changes, though impressive, occasionally distract from the plot. Ken Billington’s lighting is expressive and imaginative, but he makes one serious misstep when two stage-filling banks of colorful spots are turned outward, causing much of the audience close to the stage to shade their eyes.
These are minor infractions on an otherwise high-caliber production, which brings the fun, flash and excitement.
Dreamgirls plays through April 4 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org.
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