Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: William Ivey Long

“Dreamgirls” in La Mirada: Too Good Not to Perfect

Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt as the reunited Dreams in "Dreamgirls" in La Mirada

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

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Do I Hear a Waltz? I Do! – “Cinderella at the Ahmanson”

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella"

Paige Faure and Andy Huntington Jones in the reimagined Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”


For anyone who grew up in the particular age of television that I did, one of the two or three annual television events you waited for was the re-airing of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” remarkable at the time for being the only major musical written for television. Along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Peter Pan,” it was one we could all sing along with – or even giggle at, as we got older and more “sophisticated.”

Of course, the one we all adore was neither the first R&H “Cinderella” for TV, nor the last. A live broadcast of a somewhat different rendition was the original, filmed in New York on a Monday in 1957. That’s when Broadway musical stars – including its first Cinderella, Julie Andrews – were sprung from their usual nightly performances. It was cut and changed some for the 1965 Leslie Ann Warren version we all knew, and then the show was rewritten again, slightly, for Brandy’s 1997 broadcast.

Now it’s on stage, and at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Using a new book by Douglas Carter Beane (a radical thing for the normally protective Rogers and Hammerstein Trust) and injecting music by Rogers and lyrics by Hammerstein gleaned from their archives as well as the more familiar pieces, this “Cinderella” aims to appeal to a different age. This prince is more nuanced. This Cinderella is somewhat more responsible for her own future. One of the step-sisters is even nice. It takes some adjustment, but after awhile one must admit this newer-than-new version has great visual and emotional appeal.

Paige Faure makes a delightfully likable Ella (or Cinderella) – smart, if somewhat despairing and more wowed than swept off her feet. Andy Huntington Jones gives the prince (and he gets a nickname too: Topher) a youthful bashfulness which works far better than the overt sense of privilege one usually sees. Branch Woodman provides the conniving senior minister, and Antoine L. Smith the noble, but surprisable town crier.

Aymee Garcia makes a deliciously ridiculous step-sister, voicing every spoiled child’s misguided attitude. Kaitlyn Davidson gives an interesting turn as the other step-sister, whose love for an earnest social critic allows her perspective on both her sister and Cinderella. David Andino makes an interesting addition as the somewhat bumbling revolutionary.

Indeed, all the cast do well. The show proves to be a festival of singing and colorful dancing, with characters kept just stereotypical enough to be fun and lighthearted. The one real question mark in the casting is the venerable Fran Drescher as the evil stepmother. Thing is, she really can’t sing. That famous raspy voice may be comic, but is a sign of vocal damage. In a show which is all about music, she just isn’t up to the rest of the cast.

Still, this “Cinderella” has many charms. One of the best is the Tony-winning costuming of William Ivey Long, which is quite literally magical. And, of course, even as there is more social commentary, and a significant increase in political correctness, there is the classic Broadway choreography of Josh Rhodes sweeping through the piece under the watchful eye of director Mark Brokaw, who still leads us to the romantic magic of it all.

So, go. Take the kids. There are special treats for them, and it’s just the kind of swoony thing they’ll remember for a long time. Just ask my companion, who looking back to our youth, was singing along with the most romantic pieces (albeit under her breath).

What: “Cinderella” When: Through April 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $125 – $40 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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