I first became aware of Dreamgirls what seems like a lifetime ago. I was a secondary school student in south east London during the eighties and our library used to subscribe to Ebony magazine. I can recall poring over the magazine issue after issue, and on one occasion being taken aback by a striking advert for a Broadway production entitled Dreamgirls. It was everything. It oozed glamour, sparkle and seduction. Better still, it was rumoured to be loosely based on the story of The Supremes, and with me being a huge Diana Ross fan, that was just the icing on the cake. I waited patiently for the musical to head over to the UK but it never happened and I more or less forgot about it as I became preoccupied with other pop cultural fixations as I embarked on my teenage years (there’s a great retrospective piece in the New York Times to mark the 35th anniversary of its Broadway debut).
Then in 2006, Dreamgirls the movie was released and as most of you know, it was a certified hit, earning Jennifer Hudson an Oscar accolade for her transcendent depiction of the talented but embattled soul singer, Effie White. The film turned out to be everything my childhood self had hoped it would be: compelling storyline, awesome songs, and glitter, loads of glitter. I bought the DVD, played the CD non-stop in my car, and still watch it every time it comes on TV. So when it was announced that Dreamgirls would be making its West End debut this autumn I really didn’t think I could love it any more than I already did. But I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
I’m going to assume that most people reading this are aware of the premise of the story, but if not, here goes: Dreamgirls is based on three young, small town girls who are part of a girl group called The Dreams. A chance meeting with an established recording artist named Jimmy Early leads them to become his backup singers, and quickly they are propelled into superstardom themselves, but a contentious group reshuffle imposed upon them by their manager causes tension among the girls and things begin to fall apart at the glittery nylon seams. Dreamgirls is the quintessential backstage drama, it shines a well-placed spotlight on the grit and determination needed to rise to the top of the cut-throat music business, especially if you come from humble beginnings and also happen to have two ultimate strikes against you: being black and female.
I went to see Dreamgirls just before Xmas amidst the seasonal Christmas lights illuminating the streets of London and it was truly a magical experience. Here are some of the highlights for me:
Amber Riley is EVERYTHING!
When I first learned that Amber Riley had landed the leading role of Effie White I thought the producers had hit a home run, and the talented singer/actress didn’t disappoint – she was absolutely perfect for the role. If anyone has seen Amber previously in Glee they would know that she definitely has the vocal chops, but she also possesses the perfect mixture of sass and vulnerability, which helps audiences connect with Effie’s plight as a gifted and ambitious singer who has been slighted by the record industry because she fits outside the mould of what the gatekeepers have decided a successful singer should look, act and sound like (and let’s be real, this is still very much the case in 2016). Amber has immense stage presence; every time she took to the stage you couldn’t keep your eyes off her. The tension building up to her piece di resistance – And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going – was expertly executed, and by the time she reached that long crescendo note (there’s no way I willlllll) she had audiences roused to their feet. It was spine tingling and magical, probably one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in the theatre.
And So is Jimmy Early
Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of Jimmy Early was considered a comeback of sorts in the movie version of Dreamgirls, and I thought he did a pretty good job playing the role of the James Brown-esque singer who had a slick mouth, slicker moves and a penchant for the ladies. However, I was simply not ready for this highly charged, hilarious and charismatic depiction of the character played by Adam J. Bernard. His exaggerated persona, hyperactive movements (he literally leaped every time he spoke) and high voltage splits and dancing placed him neck-to-neck with Amber in terms of stage presence and impact. The whole cast did a commendable job in fact, the other standout performance was by Ibinabo Jack who brought a bit of personality and wit to the role of the impressionable Lorrell Robinson, who is considered somewhat a third wheel in the group dynamics of The Dreams.
The Costumes. Ahh, the Costumes.
With the ‘60s and ‘70s being two of my favourite pop culture eras, I was in costume heaven while watching Dreamgirls. From the gorgeous pastel coloured A-line dresses depicting the playful innocence of the sixties, to the more decadent, sultry and glamorous sparkly looks of the seventies, it really was inspiring to see (in fact, there is a pastel blue playsuit that is worn by Deena Jones’ character in one of the final scenes that I’d love to get my hands on it). To demonstrate the levels of bling within the production, in the programme it states that the costumes and set designs are in partnership with Swarovski, so enough said. This is unabashed, unapologetic glamour ladies and gents, even the curtains are jewel encrusted. I just loved the drama of it all. It only heightened the enchanting quality of the show.
The Issues Remain Relevant
The subjects of racial bias and cultural appropriation have been hotbed topics for some time now with the rise of social media meaning voices that were once denied a platform, are now being amplified bringing the issues of the socially disenfranchised to the forefront. The ‘60s will forever by cemented as a time of turbulent unrest leading to social change in the US. Black entertainers were forced to act and look a certain way to placate white audiences, which meant groups such as The Dreams would’ve felt it necessary to push the slimmer, light-skinned and thin-voiced Deena Jones to the forefront of the group to the detriment of the curvier, vocal powerhouse, Effie Jones. Despite the fact that black music has now practically become mainstream in both the UK and US, this is a practice that still remains at the heartbeat of the record industry. Just think how many Effie Whites you see on your TV screen, in comparison to Deena Jones types? Additionally, the scene when the Jimmy Early soul-charged ode to his Cadillac car was whitewashed and stripped of its soul by a lily white, easy listening group drew awkward giggles from the audience who surely recognised it’s a practice that also still remains rampant.
The Musical Numbers Come ALIVE!
As mentioned earlier, I hastily purchased the Dreamgirls soundtrack after seeing the film and played it continuously when it was released in 2006. I know the songs intimately; they hold fond memories for me of when my son was a newborn and life just seemed that much gentler. Nothing could’ve prepared me for how much more of an enhanced and beautiful experience it would be hearing those songs come alive via a live orchestra. I’ve already touched on Amber’s show stopping, tear-inducing version of ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’, but other standout numbers include a gospel-infused version of ‘I’m Looking For Something Baby ’, an emotive and earnest presentation of ‘One Night Only’ performed in its traditional R&B guise by Effie White and sultry disco vibe by Deena Jones (played by Liisi LaFontaine), and I can’t leave out Mr Jimmy Early who had the audience foot stomping and clapping along to his funkified ‘Jimmy’s Rap.’
Dreamgirls is flawless. I’ve tried really hard to offer some critique of the show to make this post more balanced, but I simply can’t, I loved every second of it… Okay, maybe I do have one minor and somewhat petty grievance. The producers have changed the lyrics of ‘Listen’ which caused me a bit of unexpected distress. I really, really wanted to sing along and get my Beyonce on, but they threw us a curve ball with this revised version, haha.
With positive reviews all round, and news of an extended run due to popular demand, Dreamgirls is a must-see for theatre lovers and those who appreciate and have an interest in the chequered history of black music. It’s the perfect antidote to the impending January blues. Go see it!
Watch this clip from one of the rehearsals and be inspired
Dreamgirls is showing at the Savoy Theatre, for tickets book here.