Dreamgirls at Orpheum Theatre

Dreamgirls at Orpheum Theatre

Wow,” said my young companion, “she’s amazing,” and it’s true: as Effie White, Moya Angela turns in a knockout performance, one that lifts Dreamgirls (at the Orpheum, 910 Hennepin Ave., through Jan 17, hennepintheatretrust.org) and turns a solid Broadway production into something truly special. This isn’t a cheap show (top tickets fetch $78) but Angela’s astonishing work makes it worthwhile.

As is widely known (the show is nearly 30 years old and has become a bona fide classic) Dreamgirls tells the story of the Dreamettes and their evolution from a brash and brassy trio, playing the Apollo, and venues in Detroit, Memphis, etc, into the Dreams, a gorgeous, highly packaged, appropriate for TV, 1960s “girl group”. Along the way, Effie, a larger-than-life presence with a big voice to match her body, goes from lead singer to backup, and then is removed altogether. The trap here (into which, in my opinion, the recent movie falls) is to make Effie simply a victim, done in by handlers who want to “prettify” the Dreams. There is a significant element of this, sure, but Angela is not afraid to make her Effie abrasive, sometimes overtly angry – and very sexy. Her oversized voice doesn’t fit in with the Dreams and neither does Effie herself. It makes sense that they would need to lose her – along with, of course, a lot of soul and power. Thus Effie falls victim to cynical producers, yes, but also to changing musical styles, to television and, most tellingly, to her own fiery spirit. This gives her tragic presence and Moya Angela plays this to the hilt. Wonderful.

Everyone in the large cast is terrific. I was especially taken with Chester Gregory as James Early, the soul singer whose raw passion won’t allow him to make the crossover into bland TVesque respectability. He thus goes from oversexed creepiness to rousing defiance. Gregory’s athleticism and his fabulous singing make this work. The Dreams are, well, dreamy: Lorrell (Adrienne Warren), Deena (Syesha Mercado) and, later, Michelle (Margaret Hoffman) are absolutely convincing as a 1960s supergroup (obviously inspired by the Supremes). They are a great pleasure to look at as well. Curtis Taylor, Jr. is a thankless role – the Villain – but he does have some terrific songs and Chaz Lamarr Shepherd plays and sings them expertly. Also excellent is Trevon David as the songwriter C.C. White. I have to stop myself here. This is a well-acted, beautifully sung production.

Lighting (Ken Billington) is excellent and the costumes (by William Ivey Long), gorgeous in their own right, vividly reflect the times of the show. The scene design (by Robin Wagner) utilizes moveable scoreboard-like panels on which are projected lighting designs, video images, etc. It’s a fabulous idea, but the images are sometimes tacky and raw. Still, it’s very unusual and it works more often than not. Robert Longbottom is the capable director.

Maybe Dreamgirls no longer has the power it had in 1981 –many movies, books, TV specials have dealt with similar material (in fact there’s a PBS show tonight: Sam Cooke, Crossing Over). Still, this show packs a punch. Tom Eyen‘s book and Henry Krieger‘s music (and add some new songs by Willie Reale) generate real power. And Moya Angela makes the whole thing special.

Highly recommended.

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