Sunday, November 22, 2009

Change: A Review of Dreamgirls

By: Cleo Brown

On Friday Evening, November 20th, 2009 I attended a performance of Dreamgirls at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York with my publisher and the founder of, named Richard Ivory. Richard, who had said that there would be only a handful of people in the audience, made all of the arrangements for the event from securing the tickets to the play to arranging the transportation. I was, therefore, startled to see throngs of people at the Apollo Theater all waiting to see the performance. Richard has very good taste for Dreamgirls was amazing.

From the very first moments after the show began, with the Master of Ceremonies announcing “The Step Sisters”, who were dressed in long, blue, formal gowns, the costumes by William Ivey Long( A five time Tony Award winning costume designer who currently has two shows running on Broadway: PAL JOEY and CHICAGO. ) were lavish and beautiful. I was, throughout the remainder of the musical equally impressed by almost every other aspect of this first-class work of art.

Dreamgirls, which is the story of the rise to fame of “The Dreamettes”, and particularly the rise of Deena Jones , is based upon the rise of Diana Ross and The Supremes to superstar status. For those of you who are not up on your Motown gossip: Barry Gordy who founded and once owned Motown Records, discovered, promoted, and made a star out of Diana Ross. Legend has it that he was in love with her. In Dreamgirls, Chaz Lamar Shephard convincingly portrays Curtis Taylor, Jr. who, although already heavily involved with Diva Effie White, falls in love with a little known back-up singer, named Deena Jones, whom he makes a star out of.

Like Diana Ross, however, Deena Jones at the height of her fame, wants out of her personal and professional relationship with Curtis Taylor so that she can pursue fame and fortune on her own. As the darker-skinned and heavy set Effie White, Moya Angela is superb. Not only can she act, but she can also belt a song out of the ball park for a home run. Her descension into drug abuse and her rehabilitation, although not sufficiently explored enough to suit me, was compellingly- to the extent of breaking my heart - portrayed by Angela.

In contrast to Effie White’s character is that of Deena Jones portrayed by Syesha Mercado. Although she sings well, her voice is not as powerful as Angela’s voice. Her voice, however, to Taylor, as well as her face and her figure are more Eurocentric than Effie’s. Jones is consequently promoted as a star in mainstream American Pop Culture by Taylor who, eventually, replaces White with another “Deena Jones” type. Mercado, as Deena Jones, is so remarkably like Diana Ross (whom I adore) that one can almost hear her voice quiver as she dazzles in one brilliant costume after another -especially once she attains superstar status.

Provocative are Chester Gregory as James “Thunder ” Early and Adrienne Warren as Lorrell Robinson. The has been singer( Early makes a comeback in this saga only to decline once again as the times change) and the ingĂ©nue( as a Dreamette she ascends to super star status) are involved with each other in an adulterous affair. Gregory and Warren, as supporting cast members, are so strong in their performances that they do, at times, almost steal the show from Angela and Mercado. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom and Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls is brilliantly staged. At times, the use of trick photography to create a 3- dimensional effect on the stage does tend to engulf the performance and the performers overwhelming the audience with its glitz and its glamour. On the other hand, however, more often than not the 3-D device works exceptionally well.

Although the plot of the Musical involves the meteroic rise to stardom of Deana Jones and the Dreamettes, the theme of the play is that of “Change.” The play is about the change which needed to occur in the United States during the sixties before African-Americans and other minority groups could be accepted as integral parts of the society.

Was there, however, real change in the thinking of Americans to the extent that they would be able to accept an African-American Musical Star as well as African-American Music in mainstream America? Dreamgirls would suggest through its depiction of Deena, who conforms to the status quo and to Eurocentric standards of beauty , that there was no real change. In its depiction of Effie, however, we do see change as she drops her Diva act, her wigs, and her beautiful clothes to become the mother of Curtis Taylor’s child out of wedlock. Noteworthy songs in Dreamgirls include “Stepping into the Bad Side”, “Family”, “I am telling you”, and “The Rap”.

Alas, just as Barry Gordy and Motown were reluctant to change with the advent of Rap Music so to was Curtis Taylor Jr. This reluctance to change seemed to be Taylor’s undoing.

This revival of Dreamgirls is a perfect way for The Apollo Theater to celebrate its 75th Anniversary. Dreamgirls will be at The Apollo Theater until December 6th, 2009 after which the phenomenal cast, crew, and play will tour the United States playing in cities from The East Coast to the West Coast beginning with Baltimore, Maryland from December 16th- December 27th, 2009. The play will end its tour in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 22nd-June 27th, 2010 at the Kimmel Center. If you are able to see this wonderfully entertaining though thouroughly exhausting Musical, don’t miss Dreamgirls. On a scale of from one to twelve roses I give Dreamgirls a thirteen.

About The Author: Cleo E. Brown has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis in Davis, California. She also has a B.A. Minor Degree in Political-Science and has completed course work towards a Ph.D. in Education from The University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. She is a Free Lance Writer and a Senior Editor at HHR.

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