#Tweetingit – 5***** A classic tale of ambition, greed and envy. A brilliant cast with songs to die for and the wondrous Marisha Wallace exercising her vocal chords…it just has to be Dreamgirls!
June 1982: I had just scraped my way onto a business studies course and was happily training for life as a full-time student. A Friday evening imbibing at the local hostelry was followed by a kebab and the ritual fumble for my house key. Once indoors, I switched on the telly and began channel hopping, which back then didn’t take very long (only three to choose from, Channel 4 was due to launch later that year). I settled on highlights of the Tony Awards, Broadway theatre’s equivalent to the Oscars.
As I sobered up, one musical kept coming back, over and over again as it won six awards out of a total thirteen nominations; that musical was Dreamgirls.Jennifer Holiday won Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical; and delivered a bone shaking rendition of the show’s biggest tune, And I’m telling you I’m not going. I had to see this show! Thirty-five years later I finally made it, as the Savoy Theatre played host to the UK premiere.
The big screen version in 2006 was a starry affair featuring Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy. American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson rightly won an Oscar for her role as Effie, the same character played by the other Jennifer on Broadway. As good as the film was, it felt more like an hors d’oeuvre as the stage is the best medium to view any musical. It charts the story of Chicago girl group The Dreamettes, and their career as recording artists in the 1960s and 1970s. The relationship between group founder Effie White and best friends Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson are explored in detail; Effie, a voluptuous but superior talent is gradually pushed into the background by sylph like Deena and her commercially viable voice. Meanwhile, the dependable Lorrell is caught in the middle trying to calm the group’s warring factions. Matters aren’t helped as manager Curtis Taylor and R’n’B star Jimmy Early ruthlessly exploit the girls’ talents.
The story borrows heavily from the experience of 1960s girl groups; much like This is Spinal Tap, Dreamgirls is a composite of stories from a particular genre of pop music. There are elements of the Shirelles and Martha and the Vendellas; but a massive, barely disguised nod to the Supremes. Effie’s plight is closely mirrored by Florence Ballard and Deena clearly slots into the Diana Ross persona; while peacemaker Lorrell stands comfortably in the shoes of Mary Wilson.
But it remains a powerful portrayal, as some brilliant tunes pin the story down. Cadillac car is an authentic blues song while Fake your way to the top is a rueful observation of the music industry. Act I concentrates on the 1960s and the group’s gradual transition into Deena Jones and Dreams. A fateful engagement in Las Vegas proves to be the turning point, as the tense It’s all over sets up the song everyone is waiting for. It soon becomes apparent that song could only really have gone at the end of Act I. The wonderful Marisha Wallace as Effie shows such power as she wrings every last drop of emotion from the song; it’s just as well she had the interval to recover with a richly deserved standing ovation. This girl digs her way to Australia and climbs Everest as she hits every note on the scale perfectly. Act II focused on the 1970s with Deena’s elevation and Effie’s survival as two more showstoppers, I am changing and One night only lingered in the memory.
When a show is this good, a critique almost becomes unnecessary. What else can I say? Amazing songs, sharp choreography, lush orchestration and an insanely talented cast make a complex production look easy. Marisha Wallace sounds like the new Aretha Franklin, which granted, has been said a few times over the years. But it felt like I witnessed something very special. Such a demanding role means the Effie’s will take it in turns to perform on different dates. Whilst I don’t doubt the alternate leads will be just as good, you will be extremely lucky to see the divine Ms Wallace perform. A new diva is born.
Book & Lyrics: Tom Eyen
Music: Henry Kreiger
Director & Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Producers: Sonia Freidman Productions, Tulchin Bartner Productions & others
Musical Supervisor: Nick Finlow
Orchestrator: Harold Wheeler
Additional Material: Willie Reale
Box Office: 0845 505 800
Booking until: February 2018
Reviewer: Brian Penn