Dreamgirls: The Stuff That Motown Dreams Are Made Of

dreamgirls

Jennifer Colby Talton, Welton Thomas Pitchford

DREAMGIRLS Theatre Review

Dreamgirls is a thoroughly enjoyable, rollicking, rocking journey down musical memory lane that tells a fictionalized history of 1960s/1970s Black pop music through, appropriately, the medium of Tom Krieger’s blitzkrieging music and dance, as skillfully choreographed by Rae Toledo. I was a Dreamgirls virgin until I experienced this extremely entertaining, dreamy DOMA Theatre Company production, and am in no way an expert on the annals of the Motown Sound, nor on who’s supposed to be who in the gospel according to Tom Eyer, who wrote the book and lyrics for this play that originally opened on Broadway in 1981 to great acclaim, including the Tony Award for Best Musical and a total of six Tonys.

Suffice it to say that Jimmy “Thunder” Early, boldly portrayed by the scene stealing Keith Bolden, seems to be a composite character, combining aspects of James Brown, various Motown headliners and the Welsh crooner Tom Jones. The manipulative music mogul Curtis Taylor Jr. is strongly suggested by that Machiavellian maven of Motown Berry Gordy Jr. Welton Thomas Pitchford, an actor with depth and range, who has, among many other career highlights, received Ovation and NAACP Theater Award nominations, brings the strings-pulling Curtis to life. This shrewd snake charmer — and snake — always has more of an eye for the bottom line than an ear for sound, and epitomizes those bloodsucking moneychangers in the temple of art who make creativity hellish for so many talents for whom artistry is a spiritual calling and means towards self expression. In other words, Pitchford’s expertly drawn — and sung — Curtis is a no good schemer, the man you love to hate.

dreamgirls

Tyra Davis, Constance Jewell Lopez, Keith Arthur Bolden, Jennifer Colby Talton

Jennifer Colby Talton

The Dreamettes, who went on to change their name to the Dreams, are clearly loosely based on the Supremes. In DOMA’s version, the Diana Ross-like character, Deena Jones, is played by Jennifer Colby Talton, who previously portrayed Mimi in a national tour of Rent. The Mary Wilson-type role is coquettishly played by Tyra Dennis, who received an NAACP Theater Award nom for Ephraim’s Song and according to the playbill appeared in the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls. As this reviewer is plot spoiler adverse, let’s just say that Michelle Morris, the replacement singer character based on Cindy Birdsong, is portrayed by the sparkling Tiffany Williams, who strives to save the troubled trio bedeviled by faction fighting worthy of a Trotsky-Stalin split.

Some Dreamgirls aficionados may argue that the Florence Ballard-ish role of Effie White, here incarnated by the riveting Constance Jewell Lopez (who has toured with Huey Lewis and the News and won a 2012 Best Ensemble Ovation Award for playing Sofia in the Celebration Theatre’s The Color Purple), is this show’s main character. Indeed, in the playbill, the scenery chewing (and I mean that affectionately) Lopez does get top billing.

Indeed, the character and Lopez’s interpretation of it is complex, incisive and intriguing — her Effie does come across as a self destructive, divisive person programmed to defeat herself through much of this sizzling saga of competing divas. But during the course of the play one sees another side of the story. The powers behind the Dream throne (paging Curtis!) contrive to thrust the slimmer, prettier and — importantly — lighter skinned Deena to the forefront at the expense of what essentially became two backup singers in order to appeal to that all-important record and ticket buying demographic, the “crossover audience.” This is, of course, show biz lingo for an “ethnic” act that is not genetically/culturally part of the “mainstream” appealing to the dominant majority culture: In other words, white folks. So, as the plot thickens, we come to see that perhaps Effie has a legitimate point and gripe that may belong to the “Black-is-beautiful” ethnic pride category.

dreamgirls

Tyra Davis, Jennifer Colby Talton, Tyra Davis

To this end kudos to wardrobe supervisor Aja Morris-Smiley, who also is credited as Dreamgirls’ “wig/hair designer.” Morris-Smiley subtly suggests the trio’s evolution through their fake hair, which gets longer and straighter the more successful they become. The wig wrangler (hey, did I just coin a term?) cleverly, graphically displays how the Dreams appeal more and more to the majority white fans out there in music-land through their make believe manes, as they “de-Africanize” their natural hair. Call it “tress stress”: In order to “fit in” with a more          Caucasianized aesthetic (or lack of), the singers sell out their (literally!) roots to attain more and more fame and money. Tellingly, at the end of the second act Effie wears what appears to be an Afro, as she stays truer to her roots.

Holy Toledo: The canny choreography also expresses this theme, as Rae Toledo designed the movements of the Dreams to be more stylized than those of the rest of the 28 member cast members. “The Dreams move out from an album cover into their reality than back into the album cover,” Toledo told your humble scribe at the post-premiere after party. The rest of the ensemble performed a more “looser, disco” type of dancing to set them apart from the actresses portraying the Dreams, to demonstrate that the well-groomed girl group had a more manufactured, stage managed public persona and presence, stated Toledo. (Paging lip-synching Beyonce, who co-starred in the movie but doesn’t appear to have learned the moral of the story, what with her carefully manicured, PR-conscious carefully constructed image.) Toledo added that overall, in DOMA’s Dreamgirls “the choreo is up-to-date, while still staying true to the periods of the ’60s/’70s.”

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Constance Jewell Lopez

Because this ensemble, so deftly directed by DOMA’s executive producer Marco Gomez, has so many members, plus a live band that had my toes a-tapping, without writing a Tolstoy-length tome, it’s simply impossible to comment on all of the performances, which ranged from good to great. (although if your humble and most obedient scribe got paid by the word, he would, LOL.) But Keith Bolden’s Jimmy must be singled out — you can tell this thesp, who earned an MFA in acting, has a strong stage background that includes stints in classics ranging from the Bard to Lorraine Hansberry. His acting is not only extremely energetic and amusing, but the multi-talented Bolden has a strong voice and great moves as he hoofs his way across the Met’s stage with such James Brown-like paroxysms that he made this white reviewer feel like shouting: “I’m-Black-and-I’m-proud-too!” However, Bolden is paunchier than I remember James Brown to be, and after Jimmy defiantly stands up to the (music) man, what befalls his character is never wrapped up in this production.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

But these are mere quibbles with Gomez’s two act production, which provides almost three hours of solidly stellar music, dancing, humor, drama, acting and costumes on not one but sometimes two stages, thanks to scenic designer Amanda Lawson’s imaginatively rendered set, which makes full use of the Met’s diminutive space. To paraphrase Prospero, as our revels ended, the actors vanished in thin air and the insubstantial pageant faded, having lost his Dreamgirls virginity, this theatergoer mused: “DOMA’s Dreamgirls: Now that’s what I call alive entertainment!”

DOMA Theatre Company’s Dreamgirls is being performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through April 14 at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029. For more information: See www.domatheatre.com or call (323)802-4990.

Ed Rampell

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Photos: Michael Lamont

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