There’s nothing more satisfying than a pre-opening night performance that brings the audience to its feet practically from the first scene. DreamGirls at the Phoenix Theatre Company is just such an experience. Minor spoiler alert: The opening number is a talent contest. Of course, every act — even the least talented of the contestants — strives to give its best performance. It is a splendid mix of Rhythm & Blues, gospel and soul. There are no losers from the audience perspective. Even the “lame acts” are entertaining. The talent show establishes the main characters of the story and the tone of the show. And it hints at central themes of the plot, which is the manipulation of the system and the breakdown of trust between people.
DreamGirls is about the rise to fame of a promising female soul trio, a so-called “girl group”, of the early 1960s. At the same time it tells a familiar story of black music artists and producers locked out of mainstream markets. The story loosely follows the success of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, a real life, Black-owned recording company that broke the music industry color barrier with crossover artists and runaway hit songs.
In keeping with the trend of the 50s and early 60s, the central girl group is called “the Dreamettes”. It consists of Effie White (played by Miciah Lathan), the assertive front-woman of the trio; Lorrell Robinson (played by Aja Downing), a star-struck hanger-on who is more than happy to be a backup singer in a successful group; and Deena Jones (played by Candace Haynes), whose ambitions elsewhere are at odds with her singing career. And then there is Curtis (played by Will James Jr.), an ambitious Berry Gordy knockoff who shares Gordy’s entrepreneurial spirit but not his sensible ethical judgment. Through manipulation, coercion, and bribery, Curtis makes good on his promise to inject soul into music’s mainstream. But there are serious compromises in diluting the quality of music that is a unique cultural contribution and that deserves unadulterated interpretation by people who care about it. While the Dreamettes, now rebranded to “the Dreams”, continue to carve a path to success by crossing the color barrier, it is not without serious compromise to their musical roots.
Outstanding performances abound. Antonio King as Jimmy Thunder Early, the personification of every headlining frontman whose superpower is his ability to play any crowd like a fine strad — which is how he played us(!). King’s vocal acrobatics, combined with his electric showmanship, nearly brings the audience to its feet before the opening number has even ended. He evokes the raw charisma, emotional energy, and natural expression of a James Brown, Little Richard, or Ray Charles — all rolled into one. The character of Jimmy Early is a vehicle for much of the story. Jimmy is the representation of success, as well as the chief tool for the Dreamettes to achieve their goals. When Jimmy’s kitschy style runs up against evolving tastes, and he finally becomes a cliché, Curtis steps in and decides that Jimmy has outlived his usefulness to the backup singing Dreamettes.
Miciah Lathan as Effie is a soulful diva of massive vocal talent and limitless lung capacity and depth of emotion. Will James Jr. as Curtis, is a commanding presence whether he’s barking out commands, singing or inspiring others to sing. Candace Haynes as Deena, captures the voice of mainstream Motown in its heyday and maintains a level of sincere innocence that endears her to us, even as she usurps the lead singer role formerly held by Effie. Aja Downing as Lorrell, possesses a singing voice that has a personality all its own and a comedic streak that appears at just the right times to break up the harsh realities that surround her.
While all of the Phoenix Theatre Company shows are accompanied by live music, we cannot say enough about conductor, Kevin Robert White, and his orchestra for maintaining the driving pace of this show, and the expert accompaniment to some very challenging vocal executions. Equally impressive is Sydney Lynne’s scenic design and the work of the stage crew not only in constructing the set, but in keeping things in constant motion and synchronized with Christopher Chase Carter’s smooth choreography. And a final behind-the-scenes nod goes to Mallory Prucha’s stunning costume design, her authenticity of styles, and her creativity that enables lightning fast wardrobe changes during fast-paced scene transitions.
DreamGirls is a hugely entertaining show with messages about life, love, and trust. Catch this limited engagement at the Phoenix Theatre Company.