It could be argued that behind every good Dreamgirl is a not-so-good man.
Manager Marty Madison and songwriter C.C. White do have their redeeming qualities, but power hungry Curtis Taylor Jr., and soul man James “Thunder” Early are definitely steppin’ to the bad side. And seriously, where would this 1981 Broadway hit be without them? A lot less gritty, likely, and a lot less real.
The push and pull of ego, ambition and love, of breakups, reconciliations and shifting alliances is what gives Dreamgirls its propulsive energy. Composer Henry Krieger says the show has the episodic appeal of a soap opera, and he means that in a positive way.
“These are people you can follow and identify with,” he says. “Real people and real raw emotions. Rejection and reuniting. It’s something [audiences] seem to say, ‘Oh yeah, I can relate [to].’ There’s a lot of, ‘That feels right, that feels true,’ and they root for different characters.”
Dreamgirls has always been a crowd-pleaser. The Broadway original won six Tony Awards and ran more than three-and-a-half years. A 1987 revival ran five months. A 2001 staged concert in New York became a ticket-scalper’s fantasy, with Audra McDonald, Heather Headley and Lillias White as the girls, and Billy Porter (Jimmy), Norm Lewis (Curtis) and Darius de Haas (C.C.) as the men in their lives. Atlanta has seen numerous productions, including two by Theater of the Stars in which Jennifer Holliday reprised her Tony Award-winning performance as Effie Melody White (a role first written for Nell Carter, who bowed out when cast in TV’s “Gimme a Break”).
More than anything else, however, this tour owes its life breath to a movie. The 2006 feature film with Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy gave producers a new way to look at the show, says Krieger, the last living member of the original creative team. It gave them a chance to create the “best possible” Dreamgirls for audiences who have never seen it onstage.
This version has all-new sets and costumes and a fluidity that exceeded even the grasp of original director Michael Bennett, the Chorus Line mastermind who won a Tony (best choreography) for this, his last show, and earned praise for introducing a cinematic structure to the Broadway stage. The song “Listen” has been taken from the film and reworked as a reunion number for Effie and Deena.
Dreamgirls arrives with a cast of about 25, most of whom weren’t alive in 1981, let alone the ‘60s in which most of the show takes place, the age of Motown and power plays, disc jockeys and payola, the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the uneasiness of the civil rights movement.
That hasn’t been a problem, says Krieger.
“I think people learned as they went and certain things resonated,” he says of the young cast. “I think it was a learning curve for them, and they are very bright people, and they get it.” (Cast member Milton Craig Nealy has seen it all. He plays Marty now and was an understudy and swing in the original production.)
Dreamgirls the show opened in 1962 at the Apollo Theater in New York. This Dreamgirls tour opened in November, at the Apollo Theater in New York. A bit of synchronicity? Sure. A great marketing move? You bet. As the show’s refrain says, “Show biz, it’s just show biz.”
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre, www.synchrotheatre.com. She blogs regularly about the metro arts scene for Encore Atlanta.