Dreamgirls

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.
Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Kreiger
Directed and Choreographed by Tim French
Played by Troy Adams, Toya Alexis, Thom Allison, Sat’gria Bello, Ricardo Betancourt, Jewelle Blackman, Andrew Broderick, Vanessa Cobham, Matthew Fuller, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Robert Glean, Teresa Holierhoek, David Lopez, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Kimberly Rampersad, Katrina Reynolds, Anthony Sherwood, Lee Sigel, Melissa Veszi, Imogen Wasse, Abbey Yerema
The Grand Theatre
April 14 to May 9, 2009

And I am tellin’ you – you’re gonna love me

True or False: Dreamgirls is a Broadway musical based upon the Supremes and shows how Motown founder Berry Gordy favoured looks over voice in promoting Diana Ross as the lead singer.

Whichever answer you pick, you’d be right. You know what they say, every falsehood has a grain of truth, but here are some indisputable facts: Dreamgirls opened on December 20, 1981 at the Imperial Theatre, was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, won six, ran for years and made a star out of Jennifer Holliday.

Here’s another little known fact: Holliday is the reason Dreamgirls morphed from a story based on the Supremes into a story inspired by the group. Holliday portrayed Effie White (read Florence Ballard) from its workshop phase, disliked the material and was upset that her character died at the conclusion of the first act. She left until it was changed to her liking.

Although personally I would have preferred to see the real, often-told story, I’m not so sure it would have been the crowd-pleasing, knock-em dead hit that it is.

I thought this as I watched opening night of The Grand Theatre’s production which must have its board and staff singing, “Thank you, Jesus!”

During the past season, I can’t tell you how many theatre people told me, “What was Artistic Director Susan Ferley thinking bringing Dreamgirls to London?!” Not only should Ferley not listen to these naysayers, I’d add London needs Dreamgirls and more of them. Whereas two Grand shows back, my companions wanted to run home at intermission, this time, not only did they want to come back for more, they want to see the show again!

I saw all the touring Broadway shows at JLC last season and the Grand’s version of Dreamgirls is without a doubt more memorable. The performers are an astounding, triple-threat treat to behold. In fact, from my seat, the buzz surrounding me was how much better this production was than the movie.

Tim French’s seamless direction and choreography weave magic from beginning to end. And if the performances alone don’t wow you, wait ’til you get a load of the costume designs by Bill Layton. When you have a show this good, you don’t need an elaborate set, and Layton, who also worked overtime as set designer, wisely highlights and complements the showcase of talent on the stage. This marriage of French’s and Layton’s talent has everything to do with the success of the Grand’s Dreamgirls.

Of the various versions of Dreamgirls, original Supreme, Mary Wilson once said, “It’s a piece of work, a piece of art. Anytime you have art and it’s good, you have to acknowledge it. However, it was not the Supremes’ story.” And Diana Ross has always hinted about going to see her “lawyers.” Wisely, no Supreme has sued anyone for an interpretation that is overall extremely flattering and fantastical.

Oddly enough, art has had a strange way of twisting life. The biggest winner in every production of Dreamgirls is any actress who portrays Effie. Former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson went on to win an Oscar for her performance in the movie version; former Canadian Idol contestant Toya Alexis steals the show in the Grand’s version. Both were losers on a reality show yet winners in a role that will in many ways define their careers all the while enhancing the memory of the woman we’re not supposed to think of, but do every step of the way, Florence Ballard.

It is true Ballard’s solo career was unsuccessful and the singer sank into poverty, depression, and alcoholism, dying of cardiac arrest at the age of thirty-two in 1976, just after her career had been revived. Yet by the end of Dreamgirls, it is her and what could have been, that you will think of most.