Saturday, January 06, 2007

Living The Dreams

Living The Dreams

Just over twenty years ago, I took in the touring production of Michael Bennett's sizzling, sensational Broadway show Dreamgirls at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. I remember being completely awed by its intense emotional honesty and gorgeous, rich score.

Of course, by the time I had actually seen Dreamgirls in April of 1986, the original show had already opened and closed on Broadway. The musical first opened at the Imperial Theatre on December 20, 1981 and closed on August 15, 1985 after 1,521 regular performances.

Thankfully, I had seen the 1982 Tony Awards where it had been nominated for thirteen awards. Although the show was passed over for Best Musical in favor of Nine, it did score a total of six wins, including for Jennifer Holliday as Best Actress in a Musical for her brave portrayal of Effie Melody White.

During the awards broadcast, Tony Randall introduced Holliday and her fellow castmembers for an extended performance of what was to become her signature song, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" (see clip below). I recall being absolutely mesmerized with Holliday's performance during the awards program. I had witnessed raw talent at its finest.

As a regular listener to Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" radio countdown of the upper two-fifths of Billboard's Hot 100 list, I cheered when the song made its debut later that same summer and enthusiastically charted its progress as it climbed all the way to number 22 in the fall of 1982. The haunting tune will forever live on the soundtrack -- if you will -- of my own life.

So when the opportunity to see Dreamgirls came to my then hometown of Washington, DC in the spring of 1986, I leapt at the chance to go see it. The ticket for Mezzanine D 112 set me back an exorbitant $40 -- much more than I ever previously paid for any entertainment event. Yet somehow, my memories of Holliday's performance more than justified the cost in my mind.

I was still relatively new to the whole concept of seeing Great White Way fare. By the time I saw Dreamgirls, I had actually only seen one show on Broadway: Cats in 1985 (to this day, I've never understood the appeal of that long-running hit).

The remainder of my brief experience in seeing live theatre from New York had either been on the West End (Annie in 1979) or limited to other touring companies (Julie Harris in The Belle Of Amherst in 1980, Neil Simon's Chapter Two in 1980 and Bennett's seminal hit A Chorus Line in 1981).

The touring cast of Dreamgirls visiting DC 21 years ago included Sharon Brown as Effie (she would ultimately replace Lillias White in the brief 1987 Broadway revival), Deborah Burrell as Deena Jones (she had originally portrayed Michelle Morris on Broadway and ultimately replaced Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones), Lawrence Clayton as C.C. White (Clayton had served as a replacement to the original C.C. Obba Babatundé), Herbert L. Rawlings as James Thunder Early (Rawlings would revisit the role in the 1987 revival), Weyman Thompson as Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Thompson had various roles in the original Dreamgirls and replaced that production's first Curtis Ben Harney; he later originated the role of Curtis in the 1987 revival) and Arnetia Walker as Lorrell Robinson (a role she would reprise in the '87 Broadway revival).

There was something about Dreamgirls that took hold within me. The story about Effie Melody White was so overpowering that it became the standard by which I judged other musicals.

So great and lasting was its impact that when I learned that a now significantly slimmed-down Jennifer Holliday herself would reprise her Tony-winning turn as Effie at Atlanta's Fabulous Fox Theatre in July of 2002, I snagged some tickets online, flew down to Georgia and was completely blown away by her performance (as well as the rest of the production).

Here's what I said previously about that wonderful, memorable performance, which I ranked third among all the shows I saw during the 2002-03 Theatrical Season:

Dreamgirls (Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA) – Reprising her career-making role as Effie, Jennifer Holliday returned to her theatrical roots one last time and brought the house down with one of the most satisfying, yet gut-wrenching performances of her signature song, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” There was not one dry eye in Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theatre. And the rest of the production was every bit as excellent.

In addition to Holliday (who for that last stint as Effie required a fat suit to portray her), the excellent cast included Alisa Gyse reprising her 1987 Broadway revival role as Deena Jones, Norm Lewis reprising his 2001 Broadway benefit concert performance as Curtis Taylor, Jr., Joe Wilson, Jr. as C.C. White, Eugene Fleming as James Thunder Early and Ramona Keller as Lorrell Robinson.

While I realize now that my tastes have matured over the course of the past 28 years that I've been seeing Broadway productions, and some of them creakingly show their age, Dreamgirls remains timeless. If anything, my 2002 visit to the show made me proud for distinguishing excellence at a younger, easily impressionable age.

Which brings me to last night when I finally had the opportunity to see the silver screen treatment for this great American musical. With all my heartfelt emotion for Dreamgirls' story, I have anxiously awaited the screen adaptation from the moment I first learned it was in the works. I was thrilled just seeing the trailer one year ago, and last month, I rushed out the day the soundtrack was first in the stores to get my first real taste of the talent in the film.

Since I was in Australia over the Holidays -- and the film has yet to be released there -- I purposely and studiously avoided reading any of the reviews so I could form my own opinion. I'm no movie critic, but I can tell you that I adored this gem. I loved it.

While the silver screen incarnation differs in many substantive ways from its stage predecessor, the heart and soul were more than left intact. While no one can touch the riveting live portrayal of Effie quite the way it was performed by Jennifer Holliday, Jennifer Hudson came awfully close (I still maintain that there's nothing like a truly live performance regardless of who's in the role). She was as near perfection as anyone could possibly hope for. Hudson more than connected solidly with the audience and in my humble estimation is completely deserving of an Oscar.

Virtually every performance in "Dreamgirls" was impressive, including those from Beyoncé Knowles as Deena Jones, Jamie Foxx as Curtis Taylor, Jr. and Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell Robinson. However, special props must surely be reserved for Eddie Murphy as James Thunder Early and Keith Robinson as C.C. White.

But ultimately, the story and its music are the prevailing stars. Just as I found tears flowing down my face during my two visits to see the stage versions of Dreamgirls, I experienced the same empathy, joy and pain of this moving and distinctly American story once again at the movies.

If you haven't yet had the opportunity to experience this riveting piece, do yourself a favor and get thee hence to a movie theatre near you. And should Dreamgirls ever tread the boards again, make it a point to see the show live.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 06 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Script:

In the heady days after 9/11, I followed through with plans to visit friends in Nashville. It was my first time on an airplane, and I recall flying near the WTC site in and out of Newark's airport.

Once in Nashville, my friends took me to a benefit in which Jennifer Holliday performed live. While it was not a theatrical performance, she did sing her signature "Dreamgirls" tune twice. It was my first (and second) time ever seeing her sing this song live, and I was riveted.

Several years later, I took in a performance of Jennifer Holliday singing with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. I recall being thrilled yet again in rapt attention watching and listening to her perform "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" -- my fourth chance to hear her sing this song live.

There are few performances that I remember as vividly as watching Holliday deliver the goods as Effie Meloday White. I'm honored that I had the opportunity and sincerely appreciate the tremendous gift she has forever given theatre and music lovers.


At 07 January, 2007, Anonymous Esther said...

Well, Steve, compared with your extensive history, mine is pretty much nonexistent! I was a total Dreamgirls neophyte. I don't know if two people could approach a movie from two more opposite extemes in terms of experience!

I never saw the musical and, in fact, I don't think I'd ever even heard "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." I didn't know anything about Jennifer Holliday, much less Jennifer Hudson.

I knew the story was loosely based on Diana Ross and The Supremes. And I knew that the musical was much beloved, that its legions of fans had been eagerly anticipating the movie.

So I pretty much went into the movie with a clean slate, and I really enjoyed it.

My toes were tapping almost involuntarily to the beat of the music. I loved the energy of the talent competition in the opening scene.

Although I have to agree with the critics who've said that none of the songs is as catchy as an actual Motown hit, like "Please Mr. Postman" or "Stop: In the Name of Love."

But Jennifer Hudson is amazing. I could not believe the range of emotions she had to exhibit in "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." It starts out with disbelief that she's being replaced, then turns to pleading, then defiance, until finally she pretty much falls apart emotionally. (And I'm sure I'm leaving something out!) Like I said, I'd never heard the song before, and I was riveted.

It's interesting, because it's both a very personal song about a woman's anger at being betrayed by the man she loves, and also, I think, an expression of the hurt she feels at being cast off by a society that doesn't make room for women who look like her. When she sings "and you're gonna love me," well, I had a lump in my throat and I felt my eyes moisten.

I did feel that the movie lost some steam after Effie left the group, just because Hudson is so great.

Beyonce's a good singer and very pretty, but she just seemed a little flat and uninspired in comparison. I don't know, I think a Diana Ross-like figure should have had a greater presence, a greater something! I also liked Eddie Murphy. In fact, I liked pretty much the whole cast.

I do think the movie does a good job of putting the music and the story in the context of its time. (And I wonder how they did it in the musical?)

What about the scene where the fresh-faced wholesome white kids take "Cadillac Car" and turn it into a hit? If it weren't so sad, it would have been funny.

Did you notice how the audience for the Dreams changes over the course of the movie?

At first, they're playing in front of an all-black crowd at the talent show. Then they move, to Miami, I thnk, and play before a white crowd that's incredibly uncomfortable. Bit by bit, the audience gets more integrated, responds more to the music, until the final scene, the farewell concert, where you've got this multiracial audience and everyone's swaying to the music together.

It's kind of ironic, because for a movie that charts the acceptance of black artists and music into the American mainstream, I was one of only a handful of white people in the theater.

That surprised me, because I figured it would have a very broad appeal. I hope it's not a case of white audiences staying away from a movie with a largely black cast. As you said, it's a distinctly American story.

At 07 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Appreciate all your comments, Esther, including on points where we might differ.

You're absolutely spot-on regarding all the emotions Jennifer Hudson had to demonstrate in her centerpiece, show-stopping number. It was breathtaking to watch. It's also one of the reasons why I dug up the video of Jennifer Holliday - not necessarily for comparison's sake as much as I can't help but be impacted by the sheer ferocity of the number and think readers here would have to agree.

As for the movie losing some steam after that point, I know it's a charge I've heard from many. But I respectfully disagree and feel that the rest of the story is every bit as wonderful, if not more sanguine toward the close.

You asked about the context of the stage show. The film did an excellent job of positioning the action against the turbulent times of the late 60s and Vietnam War. That was something the stage show simply didn't allow for - it was stripped down to the actual storytelling.

I agree about the evolution of the audience, and still find it appalling what many white artists did during the 50s and 60s at the expense of African American artists. The sequence on "Cadillac Car" was a perfect illustration of what individuals like Pat Boone were notorious for; incidentally, it should be noted that one of the movie's back-up singers is Laura Bell Bundy, who will soon be on Broadway as Elle in "Legally Blonde."

Finally, I'm pleased to say that my audience in seeing "Dreamgirls" was very mixed, as it should be. This flick deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.


At 09 January, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve!

This is Cliff and Steve's friend Eric, in Atlanta. Remember me? : )

I, too, adored the Dreamgirls film. Absolutely adored it. From the design to the structure to the UNBELIEVABLE costumes. Every bit of it.

I was more than prepared to dislike Jennifer Hudson's portrayal of Effie, despite the the raves. However, when she performed That Song, I swear to God I felt like I was watching Ethel Merman doing "Rose's Turn" for the first time. Absolutely stunning.

I'm glad I found your blog (thanks to Cliff), and look forward to reading much, much more.



At 09 January, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


So glad you found me, and I appreciate your comments, too. I have yet to hear anyone describe Jennifer Hudson's performace as anything other that pure stellar!

Hope all's well in Atlanta - we'll see you later this year!



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