“Dreamgirls”: A Star Rises

Chester Gregory as James Thunder Early shows how it's done.

The latest incarnation of Dreamgirls (touring the nation and coming soon to a city near you) isn’t terrible, but that’s no thanks to director and choreographer Robert Longbottom. Longbottom, who was responsible for last year’s travestied Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie, relies too heavily on the recent movie version, bringing high-tech cinema effects to a show that was already plenty cinematic. He employs ten or so giant LED screens that shift around to define the backstage and onstage areas of the various theaters at which the Dreams (the fictional girl-group, which by now everyone knows is a thinly disguised version of the Supremes) perform. Longbottom also uses the panels to project silhouettes of extra dancers when he needs to beef up the small ensemble, and to provide video effects that grow more tiresome as the show progresses. (I started rolling my eyes every time stars and sparkles appeared to underscore a song.) Longbottom also over-choreographs many of the Dreams’ numbers, and the florid, often awkward gestures distract from the performances. He muffs one of the opening jokes (which, curiously, director Bill Condon also botched in the movie) when we first meet the Dreams (or Dreamettes, as they’re initially called) at an Apollo talent competition and another trio has the same wigs. (The rival girl group goes offstage before the audience is even aware that the wigs are identical.)

This new production also employs an entirely African-American cast, which at first thought may not seem like a problem, but it’s difficult to present crossover dreams when there’s no audience to cross over to. This is especially evident in the press conference scenes, where all the reporters are black, yet the scenes are supposed to be illustrating the group’s success in the white world. (The conference that takes place in London is especially incongruous.) Those of you familiar with the show are probably wondering how another big joke is handled, when the R&B version of the song “Cadillac Car” is overtaken by a milquetoast white version. Longbottom has three black actors doff blond wigs and face upstage, while those damn LED screens project video of white performers doing the song. William Ivey Long’s costumes also borrow heavily from the film and this too is problematic, as several outfits seem almost parodic. There are some fun quick changes, but at the debut performance of the Dreams, Long encases them in capes and collars that seem to embalm them in sarcophagi. Yet another gag is blown when the Five Tuxedos show up. This group is usually dressed to look like the Jackson Five, and audiences chuckle with recognition. Here Long puts them in over-the-top jumpsuits with flared red vents in the legs and arms, and they look like Earth, Wind and Fire minus the brass.

More importantly, the show often lacks emotionality in the non-musical sequences. You don’t get a sense of the three girls as lifelong friends getting their first taste of success in the early scenes, as the direction seems more focused on getting everybody on and offstage and making sure they hit their marks for the lighting cues. (To be fair, the performance I saw had understudies playing two of the Dreams, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, which may account for some of the difficulties in perceiving the girls as friends sharing a giddy ride to stardom.) And there are basic staging mistakes, some perhaps due to the necessary streamlining for the smaller cast. We have no idea who the fourth person is singing “Stepping to the Bad Side” (“Wayne,” the program helpfully informs us), and in the second act, suddenly there’s a fourth Dream for a minute. Why? I don’t know.

Some changes are improvements over the original show: Longbottom expunges the original’s recurring refrain of “Showbiz, it’s just Showbiz,” and no one will miss it. One interpolation from the movie, “Listen,” actually serves well as a song of reconciliation between Deena and Effie near the show’s end.

But despite all that’s wrong, it’s hard to kill a show as solidly constructed as Dreamgirls. Henry Krieger’s score and Tom Eyen’s book just work, dammit. As long as you have a talented cast, which this production does, you’re going to have a good time. Moya Angela, the latest to undertake the star-making role of Effie White, is a fine actress and an amazing singer, although she relies too much on her belt in the first act. (A little more dynamic range would serve her better.) But when she takes the stage for the legendary “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the LED panels shut off, and she’s a single performer in a simple spotlight driving the crowd wild. Her overpowering skills and the raw emotional need and desperation she exhibits prove her a worthy successor to her most famous predecessors, Jennifers Hudson and Holliday.

However, the real reason I’m writing about an inadequately directed show that has only one week left in its San Francisco run, is a star-making performance from an unexpected quarter. Chester Gregory as James Thunder Early (a sort of amalgamation of James Brown and Edwin Starr) is absolutely astounding. As a singer, he growls, screams, wails, and screeches, but all of it with an impeccable musicality. He can hold an impossibly high falsetto note for an eternity and then plunge down to an earthy rumble for a second eon. He’s possessed of genius comic timing. When Early first appears at a white Miami resort, singing “I Want You Baby,” he has to struggle to keep his raucous vocal abilities in check and sing “smoother,” i.e., more white. Gregory turns this into a show-stopping, virtuoso display. He’s in complete control of his actual audience (us) while hilariously in and out of control to his Miami audience. When in one of his more unhinged moments he approaches the Dreams (serving as his back-up singers), they run offstage in fright. Gregory is also the best dancer on the stage, defying both gravity and human anatomy as he melts down to his knees and pops smoothly back up again. Each time Gregory reappears, the audience visibly perks up, practically leaning forward in their seats to see what fresh treat this gifted performer will next put forward. When Early is fired by Curtis (a Berry-Gordy-type manager who serves as the play’s heavy) and dumped by Lorrell (he is married to someone else, so you can’t really blame her), Gregory performs a short musical phrase in response that once again dazzles. So much so, you can hear the audience thinking, Come on, Lorrell: Where are you gonna find someone else like Jimmy? A performance this good in a show so solidly created that it survives all manner of bad choices is reason enough to see this new production. Where else are you gonna find someone like Chester Gregory?

Dreamgirls plays from now until September 26 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, 94102. For more information, visit http://www.dreamgirlsonstage.com.