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Theatre Review (LA): Dreamgirls by Eyen and Krieger at the Ahmanson Theatre

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Originally written for Nell Carter, Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in December 1981 and went on to be nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning six. Broadway had discovered a new star, Jennifer Holliday, and the show reaffirmed Michael Bennett’s reputation as a master director and choreographer.

I remember seeing it and being blown away by the experience. When Jennifer Holiday (still in her teens) started singing Effie’s “And I’m Telling You, I'm not going” the theatre erupted into a revival meeting mixed with a rowdy R&B concert. The music by Henry Krieger was infectious and the book by Tom Eyen powerful as they told a fictionalized version of the story behind the Supremes. It made a lasting impression.

When they finally got around to making the movie, on the heels of a successful and brilliant film version of Chicago, Bill Condon wrote the screenplay (with many revisions to bring the story in line with the real situations and characters in the piece) and directed, and once again the show was a smash, winning two Oscars and making a star of Jennifer Hudson, playing the role Jennifer Holliday had in the Broadway version. Other inspiration was in the casting of Beyonce Knowles in the Diane Ross part, giving the role true class, and Eddie Murphy as James Thunder Early ringing his unique brand of humor and a sexy persona.

2009 saw a revival of the Broadway show (plus two of the songs added to the movie) at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, surely a test by fire. From there the show went on the road, just recently reaching Los Angeles. The show is still full of dynamite music and some great singing, with Moya Angela taking over the part the “Jennifers” had played. She does a terrific job. She seems a bit old to me, but I am remembering the youth of the original, Jennifer Holliday. Most of the other characters were done justice too, though I missed the dynamism of a Beyonce.

The whole production seemed to have been shifted so as to center on the Effie character. You were aware of her story from the beginning and she got the final bow. But the real star of the tour is Chester Gregory as James Early. He is a charismatic performer who can sing like James Brown, on whom the character is based, and do some amazing dance moves that leave the audience cheering.

William Ivey Long provides more than 400 costumes. Robert Longbottom directs. The main change is in the scenic and lighting designs by Robin Wagner and Ken Billington.  Because all the action is backdropped by ever changing light panels, the emotion tends to get lost and you are left with a Vegas-like Dreamgirls, a lot of glitz and not much real emotion. The evening is thrilling but exhausting. Dreamgirls plays at the Ahmanson Theatre until April 4th.

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