'Dreamgirls' Production Dazzles, Though Performances Fall Flat Throughout

It’s almost hard to believe that Dreamgirls, the story of the rise to glory of The Supremes, is now about 35 years old. While the creators Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) have always denied any such connection to Diana Ross and pals, so the authors won’t get hauled into court, the parallels are obvious.

It’s a juicy story filled with some dynamite songs, and this Karamu production manages to dazzle at times. But there are too many flat notes sung and too few transformative moments to make this Dreamgirls a dream worth remembering for long.

In this show, The Dreams are a young R&B girl group from a big city that experiences a rush to fame when they hook up with the headliner James “Thunder” Early as backup singers. The Dreams eventually swap out lead singers, to become more popular as crossover performers, and when the deposed lead singer complains, she is dropped and replaced by another. Sure, that all happened with The Supremes, but it’s probably just a coincidence, right?

Anyhow, the book revolves around Effie, the replaced lead singer and a woman with a powerfully overwhelming voice. In this production that linchpin role was handled by TiaMarshae Sanford. While she was able to deliver the goods in some songs, such as “I Am Changing,” her Act One-ending anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was choppy and soft, not the soaring tribute to perseverance that it should be.

The other members of her trio are composed of Deena, the new lead singer who has a softer sound that is believed to be more commercially viable. As Deena, Randi Renee has a pleasant singing voice but doesn’t display the star quality that would make her a likely headliner of this group. Actually, Lauren Sturdivant, in the role of the third Dream in the trio, Lorrell, actually demonstrates more personality and star attitude than any of them.

However, the undisputed star of this production is Miguel Osborne, who makes Jimmy Early the walking, talking and singing embodiment of star power. His relaxed confidence, spilling over into arrogance time and again, gives the show a burst of energy and unpredictability whenever he’s on stage.

Among the supporting cast members, Nathan Tolliver stands out as CC, Effie’s brother and advisor to the group. As the manager of the group, Devon Settles, Jr. is believable as this sly hit-maker, but his singing fails him in “You Are My Dream,” his duet with Renee.

Staged by director Terrence Spivey in front of a fairly bland set design that features large representations of LP records (not 45s?), the show clips along during the ensemble numbers. But that energy isn’t maintained at all times, making the show seem to play longer than it actually does.

Now in the midst of their centennial celebration, Karamu House has a lot to be proud of, including an unbroken history of shows created largely by and relevant to the African-American community here in Cleveland. Here’s hoping that all the Karamu shows this season contribute to that incredible Karamu tradition.

Through October 11 at Karamu, House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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