Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Also see Cindy's review of American Idiot
With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music and lyrics by Henry Krieger, there are more than enough plot twists, entanglements, and songs to get your body hopping, your toes tapping, and your fingers snapping. To ensure that the performers and performances pop, set designer Ardean Landhuis' double-spiral staircase is a simple black and gray. While the colors are low-key, the impression it leaves is not. Shaped with a silhouette that is reminiscent of both an open heart and an understated stole hugging the stage, these staircases are humble enough to let the cast shine with just a hint of glamour. The fact that they encase two stage levels to feature concurrent scenes and larger-than-large moments also makes them the perfect supporting backdrop for this musical.
While the set does a good job of staying in the background and showcasing the other elements, ironically, Dreamgirls is composed of a series of showdowns trying their best to one up each other. The musical follows the rise and fall of the Dreamettes, a black girl group from Chicago. Intent on skyrocketing to superstardom, the hopes of belter and lead singer Effie White (Sarah Gracel) and backup crooners Deena Jones (Charisse Shields) and Lorrell Robinson (Sheena O. Murray) are briefly dashed when they enter and lose an amateur night talent competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. No sooner do their shoulders slump than they pop back up in confidence when they are approached by smarmy and fast-talking car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr. (Don Seward). With the promise of a paying gig as James "Thunder" Early's (Elijah Word) backup singers, the trio and songwriter and brother to Effie, C.C. White (Andre Russell), consider the pros and cons before accepting Curtis' proposal. While playing second fiddle to another act wasn't part of their plan, the group changes courses for a chance to work and be seen.
Hamming it up every chance that he gets, Word throws himself into the frontman role, channeling James Brown and even a little Bobby Brown. And if you are having the unlikely trouble of staying alert to his animated singing, wild gyrations and antics, his outlandish garb will remind you that he's the star. Adorning Jimmy in sequins and a purple and pink jacket, costume designer Jerry Sturdefant makes sure that Jimmy's presence is memorable. His color and material palettes also brighten up the image of the girls. Never backing away from statement pieces, Sturdefant dresses the ladies in bright coral, reds, and sometimes avant-garde creations to make them stand out.
As the Dreamettes journey together with Jimmy Early, projections effectively delineate the passage of time and the passing of cities on the road. Saving time, possibly money, and interjecting a little technology, the projections give us a lot of information and a break from the singing and dancing norm. While the group fine tunes and develops their act, hits like "Cadillac Car" and "Steppin' to the Bad Side" emerge. Although both numbers are well-conceived and executed under Kevin Black's direction, the latter is bigger and better as it evolves from a cheeky and zealous, stripped down performance to a moment that incorporates every inch of the stage, nearly every lead and ensemble performer, and features some of Danny Durr's best choreography. It is arguably the most fully developed segment of the show.
Already not content with taking a back seat to Early, Effie gets even more upset when she finds out that her new boyfriend Curtis has made the much more commercial, thinner, and softer-voiced Deena the new lead for a solo act. While the others quickly get used to the idea, Effie's ego and her accusations of Deena and Curtis coming together romantically make it nearly impossible for the new group, now coined Deena Jones and the Dreams, to gel. Soon, more betrayals, disappointments and downfalls ensue as everyone realizes that show business and stardom are nothing like they had hoped or imagined they would be.
Dreamgirls takes the audience through a bevy of sights and sounds that surfaced withing the African-American communities in the 1960s and '70s. For the most part, there are seamless transitions from scene to scene, and no hiccups in the flow of the show; of all the transitions, the quick costume changes are especially impressive. It is no easy feat to direct nearly 20 people on and off the stage, give each person the chance to be noticed, and go from a scaled down solo performance to one that is busy, all-inclusive and demanding; for that, Kevin Black deserves to be acknowledged and applauded.
Where this Dreamgirls falls down is in the consistency of the performances and in its emotional content. Although Gracel's voice and demeanor are bold enough to embody the famous character that Jennifer Hudson's portrayal earned an Oscar for in the 2006 film adaptation, her voice tends to lose air and thin out during certain high notes; as a result, her Effie screeches during poignant moments. You'll find that Gracel does well with some of the inflated parts of Effie's character: she is haughty, overly-dramatic and as sassy as the character should be. Unfortunately, the staging of what Effie's most heartbreaking scene sets her up for very little impact. Pleading with Curtis to let her stay in the group and in the relationship, all of the begging she does is done with her back to the audience. With no chance to see the anguish on her face or the tension in her body, even when she has her moment alone and faces us directly, it doesn't hold the importance that it should. We are hard-pressed to feel compassion for her. Similarly, there are no key moments that allow the audience to empathize or truly care about any of the characters. We understand that they are going through ups and downs, but reflecting on those circumstances lasts as long as the beginning of the next song.
Part of the disconnect may stem from the fact that many of the cast are new to Stage Door. Perhaps they simply did not have enough time to bond with one another and become a cohesive team. The sloppiness of the dancing in act two's opening scene is a testament to this; with varying levels of commitment and successful execution, the differences are glaring. Other disjointed scenes occur during the latter half of the show. After Michelle Morris (Cherise James) joins the Dreams, there are times when the vocals fall out of the pocket of the music and the harmonies get out of sync. It is almost as if the vocals and music are fighting one another as the characters do. However, there are some vocal highlights: Murray sings beautifully in "Ain't No Party" and Gracel knocks "One Night Only" out of the park.
Overall, Dreamgirls is a nice trip down the memory lane of sounds, outfits and hairdos that were very popular at one time and that still continue to influence today's artists. It also lightly touches upon gender and racial issues by looking back at a time when black artists were developing distinct genres of singing and dancing. Some of stage, screen and music's greatest African-American performers have been featured in past productions of this work: Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, and Vondie Curtis-Hall, to name a few. With a little more work, a little more development, and a few adjustments, Stage Door's Dreamgirls has the potential to work its way into your hearts with the same ease as the grooves work into your soul.
Dreamgirls, through December 10th, 2017, at Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Margate FL. Show times are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm. For tickets and information please call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoorfl.org.