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).