Slick, streamlined and spirited, Dreamgirls is a hit all over again in its first ever West End outing. High production values and excellent direction mean the show could open on Broadway tomorrow and blow them all away.
Former Glee star Amber Riley stomps all over the term “stunt casting” with a riveting performance in the role she was born to play. Beaming with a truly likeable stage presence, Riley looks adorably sweet as the fresh young Effie starts out in music, taking on layers of shade as Effie experiences ongoing hardship and disappointment. As the years goes by, Riley modifies her facial and physical expression to project Effie’s hard won maturity and independence. With the audience completely on her side, Effie’s bittersweet final victory is keenly felt. Riley’s voice is nothing short of extraordinary, the most incredible aspect being the whispered pianissimo notes she can sing in contrast to her earth-shattering belt.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw asserts his West End presence with his third concurrent show, all of which are big hits. It is no small compliment to Nicholaw’s gifts that neither Dreamgirls, nor Aladdin nor The Book of Mormon are available at the TKTS discount tickets booth.
Nicholaw makes the whole show dance, particularly as the 1960s music scene comes alive and the characters’ careers take flight in act one. Focus is flipped between onstage and backstage with cinematic ease, a trick that drives the story along and also imbues many songs with simmering subtext.
Under Nicholaw’s direction, the plot of Dreamgirls is crystal clear and the numerous characters are sharply drawn (and extremely well cast). Nicholaw has trimmed the show slightly, and has retained “Listen” from the 2006 movie, which is now a powerful 11 o’clock duet for Deena and Effie when they finally reconcile. Willie Reale is credited with contributing additional material to the original work of Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen (book and lyrics).
If Nicholaw has one misstep, it is placing Effie behind a set of tables and chairs when she belts über-ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Perhaps the overflowing eruption of emotion would have just been too much for the audience without some sort of protective barrier. Or perhaps less thought was given to a moment that does not involve dance.
Given the extensive use of embedded lights in the scenery, set designer Tim Hatley has clearly worked closely with lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and both have worked very closely with Nicholaw as it is the flexibility of the design that allows for fluid changes of focus. The major element of the set is four double pillars of lights that can move to any configuration. Much of the design is abstract, with additional elements such as a glitter cloth and a set of ruched curtains creating the varied locations where the stars perform in concert.
From a creative point of view, the most spectacular aspect of the production is Gregg Barnes’ costume design. Intricate details in the costumes track the success of the stars and their managers, and the passage of time periods, as the story progresses. Costumes reflect the era, and yet Barnes has taken artistic licence to ramp up the glamour well beyond a realistic level. The result is a cavalcade of absolutely stunning gowns and flashy suits, featuring more crystals, diamantes, sequins and rhinestones than a Swarovski Christmas tree. Each new look is more eye-popping than the last.
Costume highlights include, but are certainly not limited to, the chartreuse mermaid gowns that open the show, Jimmy Early’s first two suits, the yellow floral-embroidered dresses for the TV scene (“Heavy”), and Effie’s onstage fast change in her comeback scene. Many upbeat shows end with a musical mega-mix, but this production of Dreamgirls ends with a costume mega-mix, as the ensemble appear on stage in a selection of costumes from throughout the show as the Dreamgirls farewell their fans with “Dreamgirls (reprise).”
Special mention goes to hair designer Josh Marquette for the mind-boggling number of wigs, which are just as important as costumes in tracking the girls’ success.
Each of the lead performers benefit from the clarity Nicholaw has finessed in their story arcs.
Liisi La Fontaine successfully takes Deena Jones, who is thrust into the role of lead singer of the Dreamgirls, from modest mouse to blossoming starlet to accomplished, independent woman. Her gorgeous vocals are a highlight in their own right.
At this performance, the role of third Dreamgirl Lorrell Robinson was played by Candace Furbert. Lorrell’s story, centring on her tumultuous affair with Jimmy Early, is heavily featured, and Furbert brought plenty of panache and vitality to the role.
Magnetic actor Joe Aaron Reid is outstanding as ardently ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr. Reid humanises the villainous role to an intriguing grey area. Saddled with much of the sing-speak dialogue, Reid makes these phrases as musical as I have ever heard them to be.
Adam J Bernard brings a lovable spark to the eye of Jimmy Early, and performs his deliberately raspy vocals with style. Bernard makes clear Jimmy’s torment as he is straightjacketed to achieve mainstream appeal, and the ultimate fade-out of the character is all the more disappointing after such a strong performance all night.
Tyrone Huntley is sweetly sincere as Effie’s song-writing brother C. C. White. Nicholas Bailey captures the noble character of rejected manager Marty, making his comeback all the more cheer-worthy. Lily Frazer is perfectly lovely as fourth Dreamgirl Michelle Morris.
London waited 35 years to see Dreamgirls, and this production means the wait was well worth it. This is the rare West End musical that is worth the high ticket price. Highly recommended.
Dreamgirls was reviewed 7.30pm Thursday 12 January 2017.
Dreamgirls plays at Savoy Theatre, London.
Photos: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg