When Amber Riley first sang “the” song from Dreamgirls on Glee, it proved she was a real talent. When Amber Riley sings “the” song in Dreamgirls at the end of Act One of the musical, live, the Savoy erupts into a tsunami of barely controlled adulation and respect. It is one of many extraordinary moments in a production which teems with them. It may have taken Dreamgirls decades to get to the West End, but it has been worth the wait.
Let’s get it out of the way. As Effie, Amber Riley totally nails And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going; the vocal outpouring of pent-up rage, love, hurt and desperation which concludes Act One of Dreamgirls is a full-belt ballad bonanza in Riley’s hands. She has a richly toned, huge supernova voice: it burns brightly and can be felt from afar. She doesn’t so much sing up a storm as a tornado. A force of nature, completely controlled, but with an edge of rawness which electrifies the attention.
And that is not even the best singing that Riley delivers: her Act Two number, I Am Changing, is sensational in every way, featuring expected big belted notes, but also softer, evocative phrases of shimmering sophistication and graceful beauty. Equally, her solo rendition of One Night Only, the introspective torch-song with soul, is exquisitely rendered, made all the more impressive by the audience’s familiarity with the more up tempo disco version her former band members record at her ex-husband’s insistence.
And, still, that’s not all. The reconciliation number between Riley’s Effie and Lisa Lafontaine’s Deena, the eleven o’clock showstopper, Listen, is a work of art, with soaring phrases of determined shine, big, brassy, belted notes, and sweet harmonies – a reflection of reconciliation between friends who have lived a life together, lost it together, and now seek to find it again. It’s a perfect marriage of contrition and hope, peppered with tentative, fearful honesty, and sung to perfection. Riley and Lafontaine sing together, not at each other.
Without doubt, Riley is the best singer belting out tunes in the West End today. And almost all of her costars are right behind her in that list.
1981 saw Dreamgirls debut on Broadway and in 2006 an Oscar winning film version resulted in One Night Only reverberating through cinemas around the world. 35 years after its Broadway debut, Dreamgirls, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Kreiger, has opened at the Savoy Theatre in a production directed and choreographed by Casey Book of Mormon/Aladdin Nicholaw. The production is first rate and easily justifies its presence on the West End, but, despite that, also makes clear why Dreamgirls has been a long time coming.
The story centres around three singers who seek fame and fortune as the Dreamettes, a 60s trio. Effie is the lead singer, with Deena and Lorrell as glamorous back-up singers. They are very close and Effie’s baby brother, C.C., writes songs for them. Effie can really sing and Deena is really glamorous and the trio quickly attract the attention of Curtis Taylor Jr, who becomes their manager and Effie’s lover. Fame beckons, and the trio commence their journey as a support group for the zany Jimmy Early who, although married, falls hard for Lorrell (and she for him).
But Curtis, whose thirst for wealth outstrips everything, cares not about integrity or the art form: he realises that the trio will have more appeal to White America if Deena becomes the lead singer. Without any real care for Effie, he demotes her and splits the group. Deena does not want the gig but Effie’s attitude hardens her resolve, not to mention that Curtis starts two-timing Effie with Deena, who slowly falls for Curtis. Eventually, Effie snaps, having turned everyone, even C.C., against her, and she disappears into the wilderness, leaving Curtis to take the Dreams, featuring replacement Michelle, wherever he wants.
Perhaps inevitably, Effie returns, humbler, changed, now a mother to a little girl Curtis knows nothing about. She starts a solo career, supported by her reconciled brother, but Curtis sets out to destroy her. But that turns out not to work out so well for him…
The secret to Dreamgirls working as best it can is the casting of the three original Dreamettes, as well as C.C, Curtis and Jimmy. All six need to be outstanding actors, singers and dancers if the show is to take off. The women have to be able to sing spectacularly, high and loud, and although at least two of them need to exhibit Divasesque behaviour, all three have to be sympathetic and adored. Splitting the audience into Team Effie and Team Deena is fatal to Dreamgirls’ success.
Equally, there are undoubted longueurs in the first Act, mostly in sections involving the male characters. Unless the performances really sizzle and charm, those longueurs can become quicksand passages which swallow up the audience’s attention and patience. In this case, happily, the casting is mostly spot on.
Impressively, the three Dreamettes are dreamy. Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell Robinson completes the trio and is a good match for Riley and LaFontaine. They convince as friends, work excellently together as a team, and convey that sense of commitment and exasperation that can so easily characterise lifelong friendships. When they sing together as a trio, no one performer tries to outdo the other two: they blend with impeccable finesse, and when Riley’s Effie is meant to lead, she does. This free and engaging delivery really enhances everything they do.
All three actors are excellent at comedy and each generate real laughs through the foibles of their characters. The story concerns a number of melodramatic situations and exchanges, but each of Riley, LaFontaine and Jack exude charm and warmth, and their affability smooths over the sharp edges these episodes generate. They make it all – heartbreak, radiance, anger and forgiveness – look effortless and real.
Vocally, each actor excels. Each sings with sustained power, terrific energy and bright, thrilling tone. Each could work harder on diction, as lyrics generally give way to the production of the sound; this is more surprising than anything else as usually the sense is easily comprehensible. But clarity of diction ought to be a prime consideration for any singer.
Lily Frazer manages the difficult task of Michelle, the singer who replaces Effie in the trio, with great skill. She conveys the awkwardness Michelle feels at the start of her engagement together with the changing confidence that emerges as her time in the trio goes on. She blends in beautifully and her voice is pretty and sure.
As Effie’s little brother, C.C., Tyrone Huntley, so passionate and serious as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar earlier this year, is almost unrecognisable here. He completely convinces as the small town lad with musical prowess, shy and unsure at first, able to be rail-roaded and confused, but ultimately a force for good and one not to be messed with. Huntley is funny and sweet, ideal as Riley’s sibling. Singlehandedly, he convinces the audience of the power and promise the Dreamettes have: his faith in them is infectious.
In the second Act, he has a harder task but meets it head on. His reconciliation scene with Effie is judged perfectly, awkward but heartfelt; the look on his face as Effie starts out on a solo version of One Night Only, his composition as he wants it sung, is full of wonder, respect and utter joy. It sets the scene for the final confrontation between C.C. and Curtis – Huntley brilliantly charts C.C.’s maturing from precocious shy youth to resolute musician and businessman. Oh, and he sings superbly.
As Marty, the old hand music agent, Nicholas Bailey does a good job. The book does not give Marty much to do, but Bailey unearths the benevolence and wisdom there is and makes a clear counterpoint for both Adam J Bernard’s superstar egoist, Jimmy Early, and Joe Aaron Reid’s Curtis Taylor Jr, the black sheep of the flock that attends the Dreamettes.
Bernard is a whirl of itchy hips, loose limbs, funky moves, showy costumes and a diverse line in seduction techniques. His fantastic singing voice is but one of his performing highs; he is an accomplished dancer and executes Nicholaw’s routines with sassy finesse. He has good comic timing too and makes Jimmy a complete, utterly flawed, character. Bernard’s final scene with a determined Lorrell is particularly bruising, stinging in its truth.
But there are difficulties with Reid’s Curtis. First and foremost, Reid is not up to the standard of the other five in terms of acting chops or singing prowess. He dances pretty well and looks great – but, of all the parts, the role of Curtis is the most demanding in the acting sense. Curtis is the villain of the piece, but he needs nevertheless to be an ambiguous villain, the kind that charms and oozes his way around every obstacle to get what he wants.
For a deal of the show, it should be unclear whether Curtis is evil or misunderstood: the other characters all work better, are more believable, if Curtis is more than one-dimensional. Alas, here, Reid doesn’t bring any nuance to the role. He can play hardman and seducer convincingly enough, but the less obvious aspects of the character – what attracts people to him sufficiently to overcome initial lust, what makes people go along with his ideas, what makes people put up with him – are not remotely clear.
During And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, despite everything that Riley gives him, passionately and with her whole body, Reid remains largely impassive. This reduces the emotional high that Riley can achieve – she needs to feed off his reactions and he denies her that. It’s a pity. Curtis is a crucial character but not in this production.
The ensemble are absolutely terrific, moving and dancing with highly disciplined skill and singing brilliantly and with feeling. Group choreography is particularly enjoyable; the lines are clean, the movements unexpected and quirky, a real sense of the 60s and then the 70s present in all of the moves. Nostalgia and 21st powerhouse energy combine and the women and men of the ensemble give their all.
Smaller parts are all played well, but Callum Aylott leaves in indelible impression as the white boy-next-door pop poppet (with the wafer thin personality) who covers one of C.C.’s songs for the white market – it is a deathly funny cameo.
Nicholaw keeps proceedings sprinting along, which helps with the difficulties with the book. Tim Hatley’s set, like so many modern sets, relies more on impression than reality, but the glitzy, glamorous flats which fly in and out and the four central banks of spotlights which move around to depict various places all create the transitory world that the Dreamettes and then the Dreams inhabit.
The costumes from Gregg Barnes are colourful and appropriately divatastic; the outfits for Jimmy Earl are particular triumphs. Josh Marquette gives impeccable hair design and Sue Strother and her team provide superb wigs: Riley manages to get several laughs just because of her wig at one point. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting has an appropriate Las Vegas feel throughout, really lifting the show when needed, and Richard Brooker’s sound is spot on, deftly balancing the vocals with Nick Finlow’s masterly command of the 12 strong band. The sounds are hot and vibrant, and the look and feel of the show never falls short of that standard.
This production of Dreamgirls is star led, but it works as well as it does because Nicholaw has assembled terrific teams of creatives and cast and everyone works in high energy mode with real commitment. In turn funny, sad and thrilling, Dreamgirls is a bright star on the West End’s Christmas Tree of treats.
Note: Be prepared for appalling audience behaviour. Particularly when Riley sang, the audience, possibly too used to the kinds of excess exhibited in television programmes like The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent (where it is de rigeur to applaud and scream while a song is still being sung, rather than when it is finished), hooted and hollered long before the final note was sung or the final chord played. At times it seemed as though being the first to yell approval was the key. Few seem interested in letting the performers perform. A sad day for musical theatre.