Dreamgirls, now onstage at Cumberland County Playhouse, is musical theater at its best, telling a universal story of a group of tremendously talented girls who grow into internationally known musical superstars, brought vividly to life onstage, filled with enough fiery theatrics and backstage drama to completely engage audiences and to deliver an emotional experience that is second to none.
Beautifully designed (although those projected supertitles that tell us where each scene is taking place are distracting and annoying) - with stunning lighting design by E. Tonry Lathroum and a cavalcade of period fashions designed by Renee Luttrell - Dreamgirls is given the musical foundation expected from conductor Ron Murphy and his highly capable musicians. But, clearly, it is the vision of the director/choreographer that ideally captures the magical spark that exemplifies the Dreamgirls experience and which encapsulates the story's period feel so evocatively.
Directed and choreographed by Harry Bryce, whose imaginative eye and focused direction brings Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's 1981 musical to the Crossville stage, this production features a large cast of talented performers, most notably the three women who are the focus of the plot. Lar'Juanette Williams (as Effie Melody White), LaKeta Booker (as Deena Jones) and Kelle Jolly (as Lorrell Robinson) take on the now iconic roles of The Dreamettes, taking the three childhood friends from their late teens through their formative adult years with grace and conviction, each woman making her own unique journey through the story told onstage.
Williams, with arguably the hardest role to take on (let's face it, we all have our favorite "Effie Melody White" in our hearts and minds), somehow manages to deliver a no-holds-barred performance that will shatter any preconceptions you might have of the character. From her very first moments onstage, as the outspoken Effie and her friends barrel through the backstage of New York's famed Apollo Theatre in their quest for stardom, Williams is firmly in control of her character, delivering her lines with a self-assured presence. Be forewarned: It might take you a while to warm to Williams' charms as Effie, but give her time and you will find yourself completely taken in by her powerhouse performance. Effie's life journey, filled with resounding hopes and dashed dreams and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, is absolutely believable and the character completely accessible thanks to Williams' perfectly modulated performance, which guarantees that her later scenes resonate with deep feeling and barely disguised emotion.
Perhaps more important, Williams takes on the almost-legendary songs that are most closely associated with the Dreamgirls score - "I Am Changing," "One Night Only" and "(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going" - and gives these songs their dramatic and musical due (rest assured, you'll be thrilled by her renditions), yet somehow she manages to give new, fresh interpretations to these beloved arias. Her Effie is a theatrical memory you'll long savor and remember.
Booker's Deena is just as impressive, giving added resonance to her scenes with Williams' Effie, lending credibility and gravitas the overly dramatic plot developments and histrionics that otherwise could seem like so much stage business. Further, Booker's musical performances are finely crafted (when she becomes the lead singer of the Dreams and takes center stage in "Dreamgirls," you will be very happy indeed), which helps underscore the differences between the two women who are vying for stardom.
As Lorrell, Jolly has the lighthearted touch that is necessary for audiences to accept her naivete and wide-eyed innocence in the show's early going while also believing her more worldly wise demeanor in the play's final moments. In many ways, Lorrell is the "everywoman," if you will, who serves as the audience's entrée into this world of backstage glamour and turmoil, and she takes her assignment seriously, showing off her own musical chops in the process.
Joann Coleman, who takes on the role of Michelle Morris, the backup singer who moves to the forefront when Effie is ousted from the group, very confidently claims her place among the other leading ladies with a heartfelt performance. Glamorously clad in Luttrell's lovely, pastel-hued gowns, Coleman has never sounded - or looked - better than she does in Dreamgirls.
To his credit, Bryce intelligently gives the men of the story their due, casting an impressive group of men who more than hold their own onstage with their astounding leading ladies. Unlike other productions of Dreamgirls we've seen, where the attention is focused solely on the three women who make up the singing group (which some contend is modeled on Diana Ross and the Supremes - and there's much evidence to suggest that's true), Bryce gives us a male cast that is just as accomplished, ensuring that the musical's impact is more deeply felt. Case in point: "Steppin' to the Badside" which features the male principals and the men's ensemble, is the show's best production number, energetic and electrifying.