Friday, 17 March 2017
The barnstorming Motown-inspired musical is a well-oiled machine that doesn’t let up on the action
Written by Richard Barber
Thirty-five years after it debuted on Broadway and a decade on from the film, Dreamgirls – book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger – arrived here before Christmas and is now firmly entrenched in London’s beautiful Savoy Theatre. Judging by the reception of a packed house on a Wednesday in mid-March, it’s likely still to be there come this Christmas.
So does it deserve its reputation? On balance, yes. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer but it’s a nonetheless slick, well-oiled machine. Three girls – loosely based on the Supremes – start their career as backing singers before moving into the spotlight as headliners. By then, pretty, slim Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) has moved centre stage at the expense of well-nourished Effie, even though the latter has a voice that could shatter a chandelier at a hundred paces.
On the night I saw it, Effie was played by Marisha Wallace, standing in for an indisposed Amber Riley, and a barnstorming performance she gave, too. Effie’s the one you’re rooting for from the off, the very embodiment of all that’s sassy. She’s also a match for Curtis Taylor Jr., the talent-scout-turned-svengali-manager with the moral code of a snake-oil salesman. He’s well played by Joe Aaron Reid who attracted a satisfying chorus of boos at the curtain call.
There’s also a terrific performance from Adam J. Bernard as Jimmy early (channelling Chuck Berry) with his eye-watering splits and moonwalk-style dance moves. I also liked the diminutive Tyrone Huntley (so good as Judas in last summer’s open-air production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park), who plays Effie’s somewhat put-upon brother, C.C. White.
But the evening belongs to Effie. Her first act closing number, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, is so powerful, it had the audience on its feet during her performance. And her altogether more wistful rendition of I Am Changing in the second half merely demonstrates Wallace’s vocal range.
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the action never lets up, and it sure looks the part courtesy of Tim Hatley’s fast- moving, sparkly sets and Gregg Barnes’s jaw-dropping costumes. All of which somewhat masks the predictability of the story. Will Deena break free from Curtis’s vice-like grip? Will she and Effie be reconciled? Will Effie take her rightful place back in the girl group? Well, what do you think? Enjoy the ride!
Until 21 October at the Savoy Theatre, Strand, London WC2: 0844-871 7687, www.dreamgirlswestend.com. London cast album is available on Sony Classical in mid-April.