You have to give Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic Director Mark Clements credit for consistently highlighting the African American experience in his big annual musicals: Ragtime, The Color Purple —and now, Dreamgirls— place Black history front and center here in the most segregated state in the US. It’s rare enough to be able to see a stage full of great Black performers in this town, or to get a theatrical rendering of what is still, for much of the audience, an exotic culture with its own rich, distinctive language, music, movement, clothing and social codes.
Dreamgirls looks at the pop/soul music scene of the 60s and 70s—a vivid time full of bigger-than-life characters. The show’s girl group “The Dreams” are loosely modeled after The Supremes, and their arc follows that of Diana Ross’ group, with some dramatic alterations. When the show opens a window onto the glamorous, turbulent, showbiz world, from the group’s dicey debut to their farewell appearance, it’s a gorgeous, glittering whirlwind. When it focuses on the group’s interpersonal dynamics, it hovers in a melodramatic dimension somewhere between grand opera and soap opera, with the refreshing ring of authenticity. Most of all, it’s tremendous fun.
The musical essentially is an opera: much of the dialog is sung, with Tom Eyen’s propulsive lyrics seamlessly driving the story. The score, by Henry Krieger, recalls the various musical styles of the Motown era, but in the absence of anything as great as “Stop! In the Name of Love” or “River Deep – Mountain High,” the songs are a bit bland. That said, there’s much fun to be had in the first act’s witty reconstruction of talent night at the Apollo, and the recap of pop’s evolution in Act Two. One number hilariously parodies a Pat Boone clone covering one of the girl’s songs; and when, at the advice of a producer, a Little Richard-like wild man attempts to tone down his act for the mainstream, his little tics and yelps of soul keep busting out, like Freud’s return of the repressed (indeed, truth to one’s self is the musical’s major theme). Of course, even a mediocre song can take flight from the hands of inspired performers—and this, fortunately, Dreamgirls has in abundance.
As the three “Dreamettes,” Trisha Jeffrey, Dan’yelle Williamson, and Nova Y. Payton reliably sing up storms while looking fabulous in whatever outfit and wig combo they happen to be sporting, whether it be the modest pink frocks they audition in (no doubt reflecting their Midwestern naiveté; they come from Chicago after all), to the shimmering black-sequined sheaths they shimmy in for their final number, sending the entire audience into a hypnotic trance. Payton in particular, in the role of Effie White, the Dreamettes’ lead, brings distinctive character to her singing. Self-regarding and jealous of her status, Effie initially rejects a career-making offer to backup a male artist; for all her unique flair, she’s not really a team player. And when the slick producer Curtis decrees that she step aside as lead in favor of the more conventionally-beautiful Deena, she doesn’t like it one bit. She reluctantly concedes (partly because Curtis initiates an affair with her), and the group’s success grows bigger and bigger. The sequences depicting “The Dreams” rise to fame fairly overflow with the theatrical eye-candy that director Clements has proven himself so adept at orchestrating, including a stunning quick change as the girls trade flowing choir robes for glistening white sequined go-go dresses—without missing a beat. This kind of “wow” moment is what we love big musicals for.
In the role of Curtis, Jared Joseph holds his place onstage with a canny stillness, in distinct contrast with all the action jumping around him. Cedric Neal is a great favorite with the audience as the flamboyant, coke-sniffing, pants-dropping philanderer James “Thunder” Early: his over-the-top antics are a show in themselves. Michelle Morris brings exquisite grace to the role of girl brought in as Effie’s replacement, and Richard Crandle remains sympathetic as the girls’ songsmith, even in the 70s scenes when he sports an ill-advised mustache (actually none of the men’s looks from the 70s have aged well—but the women’s stage afros are amazing).
It’s very strange for a fictional character to take over a show, but that seems to have happened with Effie White. Earlier versions of Dreamgirls phased her out after she was fired from the group for missing rehearsals and causing friction—in one draft, she even died. But the singer originally hired to play the role (when the show was in development back in the 80s) advocated in Effie’s behalf, and she’s become the de facto protagonist: the character who triumphs most over her obstacles. Her prickly personality doesn’t exactly make her sympathetic, but Payton’s show-stopping performance of the first act closing song is such a wail from the heart, she brings the crowd to their feet. It’s a performance worthy of an operatic diva, both in emotional power and sheer vocal athleticism. If the script had made it a bit clearer that she was concealing her pregnancy by Curtis when she was fired, it would have made it easier for us to take her point of view. But in the end, when she develops her own career, and joins the group for one last performance, she’s clearly the heroine.
Clements has used his international connections to assemble a topnotch production team, and they really deliver the goods. First and foremost, costume designer Alexander B. Tecoma supplies an endless stream of extravagant period outfits, many as spectacular as the fashions in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s recent “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit. Choreographer Stephen Mear keeps the stage in constant motion, cleverly playing between the performers’ stage and the backstage action; he also gives us a particularly witty spoof of a flouncy “Tom Hansen Dancers”-style television number. Sets and lighting design by Todd Edward Ivins and Thomas C. Hase provide all the visual flash that Rep audiences have come to expect.
Operatic spectacle with twice the fun, great performances and a touch of social consciousness—you couldn’t ask for more than that.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents
Music by Henry Krieger
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Directed by Mark Clements
playing through November 1
in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater