Monday, July 30, 2007

Dreamgirls (The SOB Review)

Dreamgirls (The SOB Review) – Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA

**** (out of ****)

The biggest theatre event of the year may have been Arthur Laurents’ production of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone in New York, but some 800 or so miles to the south-southwest, another event -- Dreamgirls starring the incomparable Jennifer Holliday -- was giving it a run for its money.

When Jennifer Hudson’s beautifully nuanced performance earned her a very well-deserved Academy Award, it seemed as though the torch of Effie Melody White had finally been successfully passed to a new generation with considerable aplomb.

Yet the specter of Jennifer Holliday’s haunting creation of the original Dreamgirl never completely vanished. Despite having truly created the role of Effie, the movie provided no obligatory tip of the hat toward the former Tony-winning best actress in the big screen retelling -- no cameo, no nothing.

But there she was last February, singing on a balcony overlooking Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre and the Academy Awards, defiantly belting out her signature tune on the very night Hudson’s brilliant work would be honored as if to prove that the young actress/singer was welcome to borrow Effie Melody White, but no one else could truly own it.

Personally, I thought the way in which the film story was told was riveting and moving. But it was most definitely not the Dreamgirls that first captured my heart back in the 80s. Much had changed rather dramatically, but nothing more so that Effie’s story.

Ironically, the character of Effie was relegated to that of a second-stringer in the film, a supporting character whose story -- just like her lead-singer status -- was demoted to back-up Deena Jones.

More recently, the two Effies converged on the BET Network for a duet on “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” that demonstrated how formidable this über-Effie could really be. To Hudson’s enormous credit, major props were given to the lady who gave birth to the role, and rather than overpowering the young upstart, Holliday instead simply brought the song home to rousing effect.

All of this Effie-ness came to an exhilarating conclusion over the past couple weeks at Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theatre. As if to prove that she and Effie are not going to take a backseat to anyone, Jennifer Holliday returned one more time to role that for more than a quarter century was hers and hers alone. In a glorious and absolutely thrilling performance, not only does Jennifer Holliday triumphantly reclaim the mantle of Effie Melody White, but she reigns supreme. Holliday maintains the undisputed claim on Effie.

While Holliday alone would have made this Dreamgirls dazzle, she was not alone in providing some truly magical and electrifying performances. In fact, the moment I realized this show would be otherworldly was at the onset of “Steppin’ To The Bad Side” when the foursome of Curtis Taylor Jr. (a superb David Jennings), C.C. White (Destan Owens), James Thunder Early (a mostly pitch-perfect Eugene Fleming) and Wayne (James Harkness) sent the first, palpable jolt of energized lightning ricocheting through the receptive audience, thanks in part due to Kevyn Morrow’s supercharged choreography (Morrow played C.C. in the 1987 Broadway revival).

Once the audience was overcome with pure unadulterated excitement, the performances -- including those by a Cindy Herron-Braggs as a less than benevolent diva Deena Jones, who claws her way to the top, and Brandi Chavonne Massey as a luscious Lorrell Robinson -- continued building steam. And it certainly didn't hurt that Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj's gorgeous revival of Dreamgirls once again rolled out the original Broadway costume and set designs created by Theoni V. Aldredge and Robin Wagner, respectively.

When it comes to Dreamgirls’ plot points, it’s worth noting that the film’s story arc differs substantially from its original source material. As noted above, Effie Melody White remains the central story in the stage show.

Here, she has the heartwrenching epiphany that that her demotion to back-up singer to Deena coincides precisely with the blossoming of an affair between the newly-anointed diva and Curtis, who stole Effie’s heart and virtue early on. To see Effie fall in love earlier is to see the comic heart of Holliday’s performance; but to see Effie’s double whammy fall from grace is to see the heart of the show.

As powerful as Hudson’s performance in the movie was, it’s this added nuance that makes Holliday’s delivery of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” so particularly potent on stage. Somehow, Holliday pulls this incredible outpouring of heartbroken anguish from the deepest, innermost recesses of her very being and spews it forth in an as chilling a show-stopping performance as I have ever seen. The angst of Holliday’s Effie is not only that of a dream lost, but more importantly, of a love lost.

One of my friends who joined me for both this and Holliday’s last outing as Effie at the very same theatre five years ago observed that watching this Dreamgirls on the heels of silver screen version was like filling the blanks. For me, seeing this Dreamgirls was a chance to once again witness one of the greatest live theatrical performances of all time and savor it.

This is Steve On Broaday (SOB).

Related Stories:
Talk To The Hands: Jennifers Edition (June 28, 2007)
The Hits From Coast To Coast (March 8, 2007)
Holliday: You're Gonna Love Me...Again! (February 20, 2007)
Dreamgirls Revival Heading Toward Broadway? (January 26, 2007)
Living The Dreams (January 6, 2007)
Flashback: Best of 2002-03 (May 25, 2006)

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