Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Playwright Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger combined talents to create Dreamgirls, which had its Broadway opening in December of 1981 and continued until August 1985. It won various Tony and Drama Desk Awards, plus two Grammy Awards for the cast recording. The Goodspeed presentation, luminously fresh, honors the original.
The first scene takes place at the Apollo Theater in Harlem during the early or mid-1960s. The Dreamettes are a Black singing trio out of Chicago, hoping to score onstage on Amateur Night. Effie Melody White (Trejah Bostic), Deena Jones (Ta-Tynisa Wilson), and Lorrell Robinson (Keirsten Hodgens) sing "Move (You're Steppin' On My Heart)," which was written by C.C. White (Jos N. Banks), Effie's brother. While they lose the competition, the Dreamettes and Curtis Taylor Jr. (Evan Tyrone Martin) get together and he becomes their manager.
Jimmy (James "Thunder") Early (heartily embodied by Mykal Kilgore) appears and he, along with his manager, Marty (Robert Cornelius), offers the girls work as backup singers. They take to the road and sing songs like "Cadillac Car." The Dreams, as they are called for a while, open on their own in Cleveland while Jimmy Early heads off in another direction. Director Brown encourages the storylines, with various twists and turns, to flourish along with the vocals. Effie is the lead singer until she isn't and Deena takes over. The long first act ends in Las Vegas.
Everyone in this cast sings up a sometimes high-octave storm. The Dreamettes, frankly, are most effective during calmer (ballad) moments when their vocal acuity is most appreciated. Otherwise, they're able to hit the high notes for sure, but with occasional piercing tones. Early during the second act, Bostic's Effie is most impressive with a soulful version of "I Am Changing." She has been left behind and is located in Chicago where she and her daughter live. By now, Deena and the Dreams have achieved stardom with Michelle Morris (Shantel Cribbs) aboard as the third singer. Effie introduces "One Night Only," one of the most memorable of the many impressive numbers one takes in during more than two and a half hours of fervent theater.
It has been said (of previous productions) that Effie White is at the center of Dreamgirls or that it's really her story. Hers, within the context of the production Lili-Anne Brown shapes, is one of several strands of musical/personal narrative which drive this oftentimes incandescent evening forward. The 1960s through the early 1970s were, depending upon your perspective, tumultuous or galvanic or both. Hairstyles and wardrobe choices radically shifted. Samantha C. Jones equips cast members with one arresting, visually enhancing outfit after another. Earon Chew Nealey accommodates with exceptional hair and wig design. All the elements contribute to the success of this performance.
Actors, singularly or as a group, are often on the go, and Breon Arzell's choreography and movement are pivotal during the combined 20 scenes, most of which occur before intermission. One begins to watch for Jimmy when he's not on stage because Mykal Kilgore capably and sweetly lifts his voice above all others on more than one occasion. A couple of times his physical maneuvers bring James Brown to mind.
Dreamgirls could be viewed as a hopeful tale of a few young women hoping for stardom. It is not a simplistic story but one with a subtext of ambition that isn't easy to realize when strivers are confronted with life's obstacles. Bookwriter/lyricist Eyen and composer Krieger bring us passionate, driven individuals–people with multiple dimensions.
Dreamgirls runs through December 30, 2023, at Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main St., East Haddam CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-873-8668 or visit Goodspeed.org.