Tuesday, January 03, 2017

DREAMGIRLS at the Savoy - "Every man has his own special dream..."

...and that dream has finally come true.

Back in 1982 when I was queueing up overnight for front-row seats for GUYS AND DOLLS at the National Theatre (yes Constant Reader, ALL roads lead back to that life-changing production) a conversation was started with an American chap who had heard that this was not only *the* production to see in London but that Julia McKenzie was giving *the* performance to see.  He likened this to DREAMGIRLS in New York and Jennifer Holiday playing the role of 'Effie White'.

The more he talked the more I thought "Oh wow" I need to see this" and figured that it would probably pop up in London by 1983.  But no... there was no transfer - could it have been that although it won 6 Tony Awards it didn't win for the all-important Best Musical, Best Score or Best Director?  Later in the 1990s I would find out possibly the real reason.  I worked for an actor's agent named Ann Molloy and she attempted to secure the rights for a one-off performance for AIDS charities but to no avail.  Eventually she was told that the rights holders felt there was no comparable talent in the UK to do the show justice.  So there you go...

What I did have however was the original cast recording, a recording so stupendous that it is the highest placed Broadway Cast Recording on the Billboard 200 chart in recent years and won two Grammy Awards, for Best Cast Recording and for Jennifer Holliday's titanic vocal on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going".  This incendiary performance still bursts out of the recording, taking no prisoners in it's wake.  My DREAMGIRLS fix was added to when also in the 1990s I heard a sound-desk copy of the actual show and realized how much of the score was missing from the album.

Of course my addiction was mostly fulfilled when Bill Condon's screen version was released in 2006, I had suspected that it would never be as good as I wanted but of course it triumphed on all counts and now finally... a theatre production arrives in London, directed by in-demand director Casey Nicholaw and produced by the equally in-demand producer Sonia Friedman. 

I booked as soon as the box office opened for the Wednesday after Christmas, just before they announced that the role of 'Effie' would be played by GLEE star Amber Riley who would not be playing on Wednesdays.  Oh how I smiled during the confrontation scene when Effie is sacked when the accusation is hurled that she is a diva who can't sustain...

Our 'Effie' was Karen Mav in what appears to be her acting debut having become famous in last year's "The X Factor".  Needless to say that gave me worries but she was actually quite good and sang the hell out of her songs.

What must be said is that Casey Nicolaw has directed a wonderful show; deliciously fluid and slick, his production moved at a faster rate than even the film managed.  Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's score sounded wonderful and it was great to see how their songs really do move the action forward while illuminating the character singing it.  I found it interesting too that with four new songs written for the film, only one has been interpolated into the show.  There is a rewritten version of LISTEN which had been Beyonc√©'s big solo for the film but here it is used as a duet for Effie and Deena when they meet again and reaffirm their friendship.

The show looks excellent too thanks to Tim Hatley's set design, Gregg Barnes' costumes and Hugh Vanstone's lighting while Nicholaw's choreography was slinky for the girls, muscular for the lads.  Unlike the film which really overdid the Motown connection by slavishly copying album covers and famous photo sessions for both The Supremes and Diana Ross, Barnes' costumes were more generic.

But something stopped me LOVING the show as much as I feel I should have done.  Maybe the film really has stolen it's thunder as in retrospect I can see how faithful it was to Tom Eyen's original book - the film's obvious building up of James 'Thunder' Early, Curtis Taylor and Deena Jones' roles for Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx and Beyonc√©'s roles are the only noticeable changes - but I think what really put a break on my enjoyment was seeing the Menier's SHE LOVES ME five days before; it's a show that has real warmth in it's book and score whereas DREAMGIRLS ultimately felt like a glorious firework display; spectacular to experience but a bit hollow at heart.

What I also found surprising was the 'meh' quality of the cast - all very nice but where were the fireworks?  Even if it is cast down to build up the Amber Riley, could we not have given Effie a more effective counterpoint than Liisi LaFontaine as Deena?  She has little personalty and no real heft vocally.  The intriguingly-named Ibinabo Jack had more fun with Lorrell, getting laughs and applause for her big number.

The stand-out in the cast was Adam J Bernard as James 'Thunder' Early who had just the right volcanic energy to make him steal whatever scenes he was in.  Joe Aaron Reid was imposing in height as the devilish Curtis Taylor Jr. but was still a bit lightweight sadly.

As we left, Owen suggested maybe a return visit might be in order to see if Amber Riley can maybe ignite the show properly but the news that there is now a THIRD alternate for 'Effie' been cast - the American actress Marisha Wallace who has already played the role in a Dallas production - means it would be now even more of a crapshoot to see her.

It sounds like Martine McCutcheon and MY FAIR LADY all over again...  turn up for the press-night, get the reviews then no doubt have lengthy wrestles with laryngitis.  Not that the audience minded on the night we went - they came prepared to scream at anything and everything.

Despite all this I am glad to finally have seen it onstage, it only took 34 years!

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