If you've overdosed on sunscreen, shorts, sweat and sand, the arrival of the ice-cool “Dreamgirls,” those begowned, bewigged and beguiling divas who've sexily slinked and seductively shimmied across American stages for the past 30 years, belting out their faux-Motown hits and singing their torrid tales of harmony and discord, is a fine way to kick off the fall theatrical season, a time when it's finally safe again for adults to leave the house and head to a suburban resort knowing the kiddie pool no longer is center stage.
Marc Robin, whose very solid production of a richly scored and exuberant showbiz show that's far from ideal for a theater in the round opened Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, grasped certain truths about this popular piece, which, even its many fans usually admit, is no dramaturgical masterpiece of subtlety and nuance.
Tom Eyen penned a choppy book, typified by myriad short scenes that switch between concert and backstage scenes, ambition and heartache, love and betrayal and assorted other pliable polarities with such mechanical rapidity, you nearly get disco-soul whiplash. Not that the by-the-numbers scenes are that bothersome — the Henry Krieger score is justly famed and at this point, “Dreamgirls” occupies a stylized genre almost all its own and there is something charmingly 1981 about its very particular mode of emoting and storytelling. Back then, you could tell a thinly veiled bio-yarn alluding to Diana Ross and the Supremes without competing with those infamous “Behind the Music” cliches of success, sin, fall, the search for forgiveness and, within the cable hour, redemption and reconciliation.
No, what Robin most understood is that in this post-”American Idol” era, you'd better have someone who can belt the anthem “(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going” halfway to Milwaukee, while dramatizing the song to within an inch of its life.
The young actress Raena White, who plays Effie White, the big-voiced Dreamette supremely tossed aside by her producer-boyfriend (Byron Glenn Willis) in favor a light, pop-friendly (read whites-friendly) voice, certainly delivers on those assignments with considerable guts and craft. What she does not yet deliver is an Effie who really touches your heart, mostly because her character is so harsh and angry all the time, which are parts of her reality, of course, but hope and vulnerability are the other, trickier components.
White has a tendency to play where she's going right from the start of a scene, which makes the show feel emotionally rushed, although she never feels inauthentic. It's a wound-tight, enthusiastic and vocally massive performance that mostly just needs to live, desire and breathe. I'd argue the same about Britney Coleman's Deena Jones, whose demeanor is most elegant and whose voice is just big enough to fill this role but who also leaves some emotional gaps.
You can see the huge difference in experience between these young women and the terrific Rashidra Scott, who plays Lorrell (usually the most thankless of the three original Dreamette roles) and who had me wondering why the nasty producer Curtis Taylor, Jr., didn't just pick her as the lead singer of his new sound and get the looks and the voice.
Fully on par with Scott is the live-wire Eric LaJuan Summers, who turns James “Thunder” Early (based on James Brown) into the most empathetic character on the stage, yet without ever making you doubt for a moment that the character would be the absolute worst man in any room with whom to fall in love. Summers' performance is a real knockout; you look forward to all his arrivals, even though this character hardly gets the best of the score.
For some of us, this “Dreamgirls” has to compete with the memory of Robert Longbottom's superb 2010 tour, which found a way with projections and other tricks to renew the tired narrative structure. Decent as it is, the Marriott show can't fully do that. Robin, who knows the traps of this theater like the back of his hand, relies more on floating his actors in a lot of empty space. Some of his ideas are inspired — the “Cadillac Car” sequence (wherein these black musicians come to see how white stars steal their work) is especially potent and, throughout, Robin plays with images of performers reaching upward for their career and their art, which is consistently a powerful choice. Then again, he misses the crucial Act Two “I Am Changing” scene, where Effie goes from down-and-out to the comeback diva in one fiendishly tricky number.
White has a way to go before she delivers such a challenge with total veracity, although Robin could have helped her by revealing a fuller environment at that moment, instead of running so fast from the pivotal scene. The production, like Effie, recovers soon afterward, aided by a sea of gowns from Nancy Missimi, the ebullience of youth, the cast's relishing of this material and a raft of killer numbers like “One Night Only” that make you yearn for an indoor kind of heat.
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $41-$49 at 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com