Near the end of Act One of Dreamgirls, the character Effie (I saw Naima Alakham but Breyannah Tillman also plays the part) has one of the most powerhouse numbers in theatre history, “And I Am Telling You,” in which she declares to the man she loves that she is going nowhere, even as he tries to dump her. Despite his infidelity and painful professional betrayal, Effie wants him to know that she is sticking around: “Tear down the mountains/ Yell, scream and shout/ You can say what you want/ I’m not walkin’ out.” Sadly, as we already know and Effie will learn, the man she has tied herself to, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Lorenzo Rush Jr.), is a self-interested cad who is utterly unworthy of such devotion.
This moving, provocative moment is the culmination of the first half of Dreamgirls’ story, a tale that mirrors that of Diana Ross and the Supremes (despite protestation from its author, Tom Eyen, that its sources are far more diverse than that).
Effie had traveled from Chicago to New York with her friends and fellow “Dreamettes” Deena (Taylor Marie Daniel) and Lorrell (Mariah Lyttle) looking for a chance to break into the music business. They find it thanks to Taylor (who had glommed onto the needy Effie in order to attach himself to them) and end up singing backup on tour with established soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Ben Toomer). When it comes time to break with the undeniably talented but unpredictable and self-destructive Early and go on their own, though, Taylor decides that Effie, whose powerful voice has been the foundation of their sound, has become as unreliable as Early and that her physical appearance won’t play on TV. So he switches his affection to Deena, rebranding the group as “Deena and the Dreams,” and sends his former lover and lead singer packing.
Of course, Deena and the Dreams become a hyper-successful national sensation, while Effie returns to Chicago alone. Even her songwriter brother C.C. (Denzel DeAngelo Fields) succumbs to the lure of fame and fortune and abandons her for the Dreams’ rising star. The second act moves between their popular national tour and Effie’s efforts at self-reinvention, which only arrives when C.C.—who has fallen in love with Effie’s replacement Michelle (Aeriel Williams)—realizes what an idiot he has been to follow the untrustworthy and unbending Taylor and returns to his sister, bringing with him the emotional ballad that will resurrect her career: “One Night Only.” (To underscore what a total scumbag he truly is, Taylor has the Dreams record an unsanctioned, upbeat, competing version and does his best to bring Effie’s version down.)
Yes, the show has a lot of inside-the-music-industry elements, including a significant subplot concerning payola, but ultimately this is a compelling story about intriguing, talented, but flawed people who fall under the Svengali-like influence of a man who is only able to be faithful to himself. Some of them, like Jimmy, fall apart as Taylor asserts his “my way or the highway” attitudes; some, like the Dreams, find the fame they desire. Even that, though, is tainted: like the real Diana Ross, Deena wants to quit the group in order to make movies, but Taylor stands in her way (and, as played by the physically imposing Rush, he’s hard to ignore).
The show’s claim to fame (besides “And I Am Telling You” and “One Night Only”) is the way it recreates the lives and careers of the Black artists it depicts. From the first scenes backstage at a bare-stage Apollo Theatre talent contest to the glitz and glamor of the touring Dreams to the dressing rooms and photo shoots and press events, Dreamgirls is a deep dive into the world of pop-influenced soul (soul-influenced pop?) of 60s-era girl groups. But it is more than that. I found myself empathizing with Effie’s pain as her own dreams are seemingly crushed, even if her own actions were, at least in part, responsible. Alakham’s performance, like Jennifer Hudson’s and Jennifer Holliday’s famous ones, takes a not-particularly-likable character who could have been (and indeed, in the early stages of the play’s creation, was) dropped entirely after intermission and makes her its emotional heart and soul. Effie may be putting herself on the line for the wrong reasons in “And I Am Telling You,” but watching her return from that not only feels good to the audience but provides Deena—who never succumbs completely to the star treatment—the power she needs to live her own life as well.
Christopher Betts’ direction (massively alive during the group numbers, powerfully focused during more private scenes) and Amy Hall Garner’s energetic choreography (wait until you see the “brass section” in concert) make this musical a true delight to watch. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set design (along with properties by Jesse Gaffney) is an unexpected combination of simple and pop-dramatic. Samantha C. Jones’ colorful, glittery, and glamorous costumes work with Reuben D. Echoles’ wigs and makeup to—at times—almost steal the show. And Christie Chiles Twillie’s fifteen-piece orchestra leaves the theatre awash in dynamic, robust music. Indeed, all of the technical elements are spot-on, not that that is surprising in a Paramount show.
This is a guaranteed feel-good show, and that is something that is always welcome. It runs through Oct. 16; tickets are available through https://paramountaurora.com/broadway/.