By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Exploding with forced fabulosity, the national tour of Dreamgirls currently at the Music Hall at Fair Park lifts the 1981 musical into the realm of high-tech spectacle. Visually, it's a stunner. Spanning the stage are revolving walls of LED lights on designer Robin Wagner's enormous, industrial-grid set. These become giant video screens filled with real-time images of the performers as they shimmy and shout through Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's Motown-inspired score. Lighting designer Ken Billington and mixed-media artist Howard Werner flood the towering panels with more eye-popping images, splashing vivid blues and hot pinks wall to wall.
It's such a dazzling display of effects that the musical's stars, none a marquee name, could risk looking small and dull under the second-heaviest technical production Dallas Summer Musicals has ever put on (the biggest was Miss Saigon). That actors don't get lost in this pop-art circus comes from director-choreographer Robert Longbottom's focus on making the performances as large as humanly possible (assisted by heavy-duty amplification). Large meaning exaggerated, broad and cartoonishly comedic. That works fine for some of the show, but not all of it. When they do manage to squeeze out genuine emotion in service to the material, it's for only a few fleeting moments in two hours and 30 minutes of throbbing hyperactivity.
They all look really great, though, as they navigate their roiling sea of sequins and rhinestones. This is the most lavishly costumed musical since Wicked. Tony-winning Broadway designer William Ivey Long puts the Dreamgirls and the girls and boys around them in sexy-sleek, candy-colored '60s couture, quick-changed at heart-attack pace between the show's many short, choppy scenes. There are also wigs, dozens of wigs, mountains of wigs, growing bigger and more elaborate as the title characters (singers the show's creators have always insisted are NOT based on Diana Ross and the Supremes) evolve from wannabes into superstars.
Dreamgirls is about transformations—one of its several showstoppers is the song "I Am Changing"—and this production, a non-Equity international tour that started in South Korea and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem, has taken the vintage Broadway show, blended in new songs from the hit 2006 movie (including the second-act duet "Listen") and infused all of that with the quick-cut rhythms of music videos. It's been transformed, all right, from a swell old show about some mixed-up girls from Motown into a hot, fresh slice of glitz. What it doesn't have is big-name stars and experienced actors who act as well as they sing.
American Idol fans might recognize the closest this production comes to a household name: Syesha Mercado, third-place finisher behind Davids Archuleta and Cook from the talent show's seventh season. Simon Cowell often faulted Mercado for sounding "too Broadway," a quality that helps her in Dreamgirls (though she seemed to have vocal volume problems on opening night here). Mercado plays diva Deena Jones, the pretty teen pushed into the spotlight as lead singer of the R&B-turned-mainstream-pop trio called The Dreams. Deemed more commercially appealing than The Dreams' strongest belter, the mercurial, queen-sized Effie Melody White (played by Moya Angela), Deena rises to music and fashion superstardom. She realizes the dreams Effie thought were hers, plunging Effie into near-obscurity. Deena also steals and marries Effie's boyfriend, the group's ruthlessly ambitious manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd).
Pretty girl gets fame, fortune and the man; fat girl gets audience-rousing act-one closer. In this Dreamgirls, as in the others, all roads lead to "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," Effie's defiant ballad about losing her man and her place in the group. On opening night at Fair Park, the audience was so primed for this number they would have told Effie "no-no-no-NO-no" themselves if she hadn't gone full throttle from the get-go. And this Effie does that, revving from low- gear growl to wide-open melisma without so much as a deep breath in between. Does she rush it? Yes. Does it matter? No. Ms. Angela may not be as impressive an actress or singer as the Effies played by Jennifers Holliday and Hudson, but, to borrow a phrase from another Idol judge, she takes this difficult song and makes it her own.
And she isn't the only one to bring the Fair Park audience to shrieking show-gasm. Playing James "Thunder" Early, actor Chester Gregory wears a Little Richard pompadour and does crazy knee-drops like Prince as the character loosely based on James Brown. (He's the soul music star for whom The Dreams are merely an opening act early in the show.) Gregory, who played the lead in The Jackie Wilson Story at the Apollo, goes to town with the comedy as the ego-driven Jimmy, but he also finds the hurt Jimmy feels as the music biz tries to turn him into a black Pat Boone safe for white audiences. Gregory is a fantastic singer, too, earning audience screams on the rousing "Fake Your Way to the Top" and getting the biggest applause at the curtain call, appreciation for a well-rounded turn in a production that tells you again and again that it is not going—without another big, splashy number, that is.<\hr>