Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt as the reunited Dreams in “Dreamgirls” in La Mirada
From the moment that “Dreamgirls” first appeared on Broadway it was about two or three things at once. Most obviously it was an only partially disguised look at the story of The Supremes as they rose to fame and dissolved. More subtly, it was the story of payola and pandering to a “non-ethnic” audience as the highway to success for Black performers in the early 1960s.
But for many, it is all about the dynamism of whomever ends up playing Effie, the full-figured, full-voiced, difficult group member sacrificed on the altar of a white-approved success. First it was Jennifer Holiday, whose extraordinary voice created such a stir that many reviewers talked of little else. Then it was Jennifer Hudson, whose Oscar for playing Effie made her a household word even if she didn’t win “American Idol.”
This has done a disservice to the rest, to some extent. One powerful performance does not, under ordinary circumstances, a musical make. Now, at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the McCoy Rigby production of “Dreamgirls” features Moya Angela in that most important role. Still, there is much else to praise, and a few things to caution about, as one looks at the production as a whole.
Most praiseworthy is an interesting, talented, and sizable cast. Jasmin Richardson and Brittney Johnson, as the other original members of The Dreams, manage to mature as the show moves along in ways both subtle and important. As she morphs into the featured soloist of the group, Richardson proves particularly striking in both her increased poise and her sense of her character’s awkwardness in the face of what that move does to Effie.
Angela makes the most of Effie. Throughout the show’s first half, detailing the group’s rise and Effie’s fall, she hits just the right note, climaxing in the physically powerful and emotionally taxing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The problem, in the second half, is that all conversational singing (as opposed to supposed recordings, or dialogue) is done at virtually the same volume as that iconic song – a volume which becomes unrelenting, particularly in a duet with Richardson which sounds like a shouting match even as it should be a more intimate moment of connection.
As for the men, John Devereaux makes sensitive work of Effie’s brother, the group’s songwriter, while Scott A. People gives just the right aura of cutthroat salesmanship to the man who manipulates their climb. David LaMarr creates one of the more complex characters as James “Thunder” Early, whose James Brown-like renditions are softened into a Johnny Mathis style he cannot maintain. His character, almost by accident, provides one of the piece’s issues: the men’s costumes.
Costume designer William Ivey Long gets the women just right, from their frumpier homemade start through the glittering evening gowns and such which define such a group in that era. Likewise, the back-up dancers – especially as The Dreams enter the disco era – fit right with the style of the times. But there are simple issues with the more subtle costumes of some of the men. People ends up in a suit with a sequined collar a promoter who never goes onstage, who is trying to bring class and “white culture” to his groups would never wear. In a critical sequence LaMarr is put in a (for him) dryly restrictive tuxedo, when lyrics just a few moments later talk about his being stuffed into a tail coat. These details may seem minor but point to a lack of attention.
Still, the overall concept of director Robert Longbottom is stunning. From the start, much of what has made “Dreamgirls” work has been the technical wizardry of sets which move quickly to create space after space for this very episodic tale. Scenic designer Robin Wagner does not disappoint, as – for once – electric screens dropped in and out of the stage space create appropriate rather than garish backgrounds for the widely shifting scenarios (concert stages, hotel rooms, backstage wings) in which the drama exists.
So, taken as a whole, this new “Dreamgirls” has a lot to recommend it. The voices are solid and strong, the story holds up well, and the visuals can be stunning. Now it’s time to fix the details so it can be as good as this show has proven it can be.
What: “Dreamgirls” When: Through April 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com