In theater, only a few steps separate the backstage from the front. But close as those two worlds are, their differences are vast. And success in the spotlight is often determined by how well performers negotiate the riptides of the dramas happening behind the scenes.
So it is in Dreamgirls, the rompin', stompin' roman a clef based loosely on the Supremes, Motown's signature girl group. Employing an avalanche of spangled period costumes and a cast that errs only in expending too much energy at times, this Cain Park production is a visceral if not always thoroughly emotional ride.
The show opened on Broadway 30 years ago under the direction of post-Chorus Line Michael Bennett. Dreamgirls' sung-through dialogue and non-stop activity give the production a propulsive quality that is nearly irresistible.
This production squeezes a large cast into the intimate confines of the Alma Theatre. But that compression only serves to increase the frenetic pressure as the songs build momentum to a feel-good conclusion that seems, oddly, less than transformative.
It is 1962, and the Dreamettes, a trio of neophyte African-American girl singers from Chicago, find themselves onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, competing in that venue's famous amateur night. Although they lose in the fixed voting, a slick would-be agent named Curtis manages to find them a gig as backup singers for James "Thunder" Early, a James Brown avatar.
Meanwhile, the Dreamettes' lead singer Effie, a young woman of ample proportions both vocally and physically, falls for Curtis. The new act has success with "Cadillac Car," a song written by Effie's brother, until it is blandly covered by a Pat Boone-like white singer.
This is the crux of the conflict: how much these black performers have to compromise their musical values to achieve success in 1960s America. And compromise they do: Early is reborn as a mellow balladeer, while Curtis remakes the Dreamettes into the Dreams, bumping Effie out of her lead role in favor of slim and pretty Deena.
Performances range from competent to superb. As Jimmy Early, Kyle Primous comes on so strong at first that it seems he may simply vibrate himself into the nearby woods, never to be seen again.
But he gradually gets control of this electrifying character. Primous' performance hits its peak when Jimmy, fed up with singing banal ballads, morphs the mellow "You Are My Dream" into a trouser-dropping explosion of frustration in "Rap."
As for the Dream girls, they are all effective in their own way. As Deena, Ciara Renee has the looks, the voice, and the slightly diffident mien that the character demands. Colleen Longshaw provides perfect counterpoint as Lorrell, the sassy gal who falls hard for Jimmy. And Alicia Reece as Effie's replacement also has some nice moments.
But the central role is Effie's, and Adrianna M. Cleveland is largely up to the demands. Combining her character's romantic vulnerabilities with a diva's temperament, she credibly embodies this mercurial songstress. Effie's iconic solo at the end of Act One is delivered adequately, but Cleveland soars in "I Am Changing," a second-act solo performed with more nuance.
Set and costume designer Russ Borski wisely uses his resources on the latter rather than the former. So even though the set is essentially monotone black, it nicely defines the backstage from the onstage. Then the dazzling costumes provide the luscious visuals.
Director Victoria Bussert manages the pace while allowing for a few quieter moments of contemplation. Still, the emotional payoff never quite happens, due to wall-to-wall orchestrations that eventually numb the brain. But even without tear-stained cheeks, the show hooks you fast and doesn't let go until well past the final curtain.
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