Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dreamgirls (The SOB Review)

Dreamgirls (The SOB Review) – Apollo Theatre, New York City, New York

**1/2 (out of ****)

Dreams don’t necessarily always come true, at least not in the way you hope.

But a partial realization is better than a complete pipedream going up in smoke. And so it goes not only with the lofty aspirations of Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls, but also with the entertaining, if somewhat disappointing, revival of the musical itself.

When I learned that this show, one of my all-time favorite musicals, would be revived -- and at the Apollo Theatre, no less, the fabled venue prominently featured in the tuner’s opening scene -- I began to fantasize about how a new stage incarnation could reclaim the collective consciousness of an audience whose memories of the original had been wrestled away by the decent, if dramatically different silver screen incarnation from 2007.

Director Robert Longbottom’s Dreamgirls may have avoided stepping into the bad side in the most pejorative of senses. Yet it’s remarkable how many steps backward he’s taken via liberties with the vastly superior original book by Tom Eyen, as well as making it seem a bit cartoonish.

Not only has a new version of the song “Listen” been lifted from the film version (this time sung as a duet between Effie Melody White and Deena Jones), but like the movie, this Dreamgirls has unnecessarily shifted too much of its heart away from what should be Effie’s enthralling and supremely urgent story. In doing so, the irony is that Longbottom has nearly subjugated Effie to the type of supporting role her character rails against playing within the fictional Dreams.

There are flashes of brilliance in its hardworking cast to be sure, and they make Henry Krieger and Eyen's score come alive. It should be heartbreaking to watch any rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Fortunately, Moya Angela wells up with the requisite mix of anger and anguish to nearly make this the show-stopping tune it’s intended to be.

However, nearly all of this Dreamgirls’ biggest flourishes come from the giant LED screens that Howard Werner has used in lieu of scenery. That’s not necessarily all bad as the dizzying array of displayed images provide an added texture to the proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s almost the single most electrifying aspect of the show, and all fingers point back to Longbottom again for not investing more in his talented cast’s ability to move the story along with heart and soul.

The biggest exception here, and it is extraordinarily large, is Chester Gregory’s astonishing, captivating turn as the fictional R&B pioneer, James “Thunder” Early. Gregory’s supporting performance is so electrifying that his breathtaking mega-wattage practically leaves those illuminated LED panels in the dark.

Longbottom’s slick choreography is serviceable, albeit a tad uninspired, much like his direction, leaving dreams dashed for those anticipating something truly unforgettable. At least this Dreamgirls avoids devolving into a nightmare, and is more enjoyable than not.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminate against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I have received nothing of value in exchange for this post. I paid my own way for this performance.

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