Dreamgirls follows the fortunes of the Dreamettes, a group that looks, sounds and behaves a lot like the early Supremes (though the show's writers have long denied the connection). Discovered at an Apollo Theater talent show in the late '60s, the three teen-agers are propelled to stardom by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Bill Bland), an ambitious music producer bent on creating black acts white audiences will embrace. Curtis seduces Effie, then drives her close to madness by replacing her as lead singer of "The Dreams" with Deena Jones (Joi Jackson), a singer with a weaker voice but sleeker look (again, parallels abound to the story of how Diana Ross supplanted the Supremes' original lead singer, Flo Ballard). The third girl, Lorrell (Vernicia Vernon), happily ooh-aahs behind the gorgeous Deena but grows miserable as longtime mistress to an aging star named Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Keenan Zeno), a James Brown type who fights the homogenization of R&B--he wants to keep it "rough and black"--only to see his career wane as The Dreams score their first No. 1 singles.
Act 1 charts the rise of The Dreams and the breakdown of Effie. Act 2 brings the inevitable recovery and rediscovery of Effie and a touching reunion of the original group at The Dreams' farewell concert in the mid-'70s. It's an emotional ride, and as big musicals go, this one boasts a better-than-usual collection of hummable, memorable tunes by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen.
Such music requires a period-specific singing style from the leads. Not the 40 notes per syllable Mariah Carey/Whitney Houston/every chick on American Idol frontal assault. The sound of Dreamgirls tries for a reasonable facsimile of classic Motown, with strong backbeats, smooth, clear melodies and close harmonies. That's the sound that sent the Supremes to the top of the pop charts and onto Top 40 radio, and it made Motown founder Berry Gordy's family of young black artists into megastars.
The local cast of Dreamgirls seems perfectly at ease with this musical genre. They belt when they need to belt and bop when they need to bop. What makes this ensemble exceptional is that it features not just good singers, but good singers who can act. In the leads, Chimberly Carter and her fellow Dreamettes, Jackson and Vernon, make a believable transition from giggly teens to grown-up pop royalty rebelling against the exhausting demands of careers at the top. Their voices blend beautifully, and Jackson's got Miss Ross' breathy voice and languid, half-lidded come-hither look. Carter's a dynamite singer, but she's a natural comedian, too. Then she turns around and breaks the audience's hearts during Effie's difficult resurrection after the breakdown. That's versatility.
As the girls' conniving agent, Bill Bland radiates sex appeal and possesses a voice that starts somewhere below the floorboards and rises to the rafters. His big number, "When I First Saw You," is a haunting ballad that he infuses with an appropriately smarmy charm.
Dreamgirls' showiest male role is hip-thrusting, pompadour-wearing Jimmy "Thunder" Early, and Keenan Zeno goes to town and back with the part, strutting in a periwinkle Nehru jacket and gold chains, nearly stealing the show with his explosive energy and fierce comic timing. This guy's a caution.
Cedric Neal sings softly but carries several small scenes as Effie's brother C.C., a songwriter who goes to war with the overbearing Taylor over the integrity of the music.
In various smaller roles, Yolanda Davis, Ty Foard, Dane Hereford, Douglas Carter, Garry Williams, Dee Smith, Lisa Baker, Tracey Bryant, Willie Mann and Benni Miller provide killer harmonies and expertly execute choreographer Edmond Angel Giles' witty go-go dance steps.
If only the technical look of this production were as polished as its cast's performing skills. Director Guinea Bennett-Price, who also helmed last year's Once on This Island for TFM Productions, has assembled a tip-top group of actors, but she doesn't move them around effectively in the tight performance space. Effie's two big songs, for example, happen mostly upstage in murky lighting. Carter is a petite Effie to start with, and obscuring her behind clunky set pieces, or having her try to negotiate in and around them while singing, badly serves the actor. Carter should be front and center on her spotlight numbers, where the audience can read her expressive eyes and feel the spine-tingling power of her enormous voice.
Set designers Keith and Andrea Redmon haven't made the best use of the theater either. In too many lengthy scene changes, large set elements get shoved around so slowly the show grinds to a dead stop at points where the momentum should keep clicking without interruption. A week into the show's run, the stage crew was still bumping into each other during blackouts, and one of them nearly knocked down the false proscenium during a set switch. Some of the props used onstage are just unforgivably amateurish, particularly two absurdly fake TV cameras that look to have been slapped together from wooden ammo boxes. They're unnecessary anyway.
Suzi Cranford and Bill Bullard do a little better with the costumes, but the fabrics for The Dreams too often are flimsy and get washed out under the lights. Dress designs for the superstar phase of the group appear to be Simplicity patterns whipped up from cheap floral bed sheets. They dress Carter in bulky dresses and gigantic coats, perhaps to make her look heftier than she really is.
Twenty-two years after its debut on Broadway in a production directed and choreographed by the legendary Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls holds up better than most musicals of that era, definitely better than A Chorus Line, Bennett's other long-running show, which now sounds hokey and dated. That's a tribute to Eyen and Krieger's score. Like the Motown hits that inspired them, Dreamgirls' songs still are a kick to listen to, especially when sung by a cast as good as the one TFM Productions has put together. And certainly there's nothing stale about the show's story of young singers struggling for their big break. Watch American Idol and Star Search for proof that hitting the big time by hitting the high notes remains the supreme American dream.