Dreamgirls Gets a Facelift

09/01/2010 10:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many people in the theater community were taken by surprise in July when it was announced that a new touring production of Dreamgirls would cancel its two-week engagement at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. because advance ticket sales were so disappointing. Co-produced by John Breglio and Chin Shun Soo (President of Seoul's OD Musical Theater Company), this is a charmed production of a revolutionary Broadway musical. Thanks to the use of technology that was not available when Dreamgirls premiered on Broadway nearly 30 years ago, this revival has gone through a unique incubation process.

The show's five astonishingly mobile LED panels -- which use a previously unknown type of screen from Korean manufacturer Vissem Electronics -- were built by Hudson Scenic Studios in New York. In October 2008, prior to shipping the scenery to Korea, the panels were tested at the Eisenhower Theater in West Point.

The production opened on February 27, 2009 in Seoul with a Korean cast performing the show in Korean. This approach not only allowed the producers to build the show's costumes at great savings, it allowed the creative team to have an extended out-of-town tryout in which to tweak the physical production (which includes the use of live camera feeds).

Back in 1981, when Robin Wagner designed the original Broadway production, audiences were amazed at how Wagner's lighting towers literally danced across the stage, becoming an integral part of the action. This new production (whose technical wonders are detailed in a fascinating article by David Barbour in the March 2010 issue of Lighting and Sound America) does the unthinkable. It makes 1981's Dreamgirls look downright primitive and nearly geriatric.

The first stop on the American tour was at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, where Dreamgirls opened for a four-week run on November 22, 2009. As producer John Breglio explains:

"When we started planning this new production, I knew it was time to finally bring Dreamgirls to the Apollo. Throughout its history, the Apollo has been known as a proving ground where new talent has been discovered and nurtured and careers have been launched. That's what Dreamgirls is all about. The very first scene in Dreamgirlstakes place right here at the Apollo's famous Amateur Night. What better place to launch a new production of this groundbreaking show?"

The touring version of Dreamgirls that recently roared into San Francisco's Curran Theater features sets by Robin Wagner (that are carefully integrated with Howard Werner/Lightswitch's computerized multimedia effects) and costumes by William Ivey Long. For those who felt that the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls lacked the electricity of the stage version, this new production adds plenty of cinematic flair and vitality to the show without diminishing the audience's thrills at all. In the following video clip, members of the creative team discuss some of the changes that were made:

From the very first beats of Henry Krieger's score, this new staging of Dreamgirls roars out of the opening gate and never slows down. I can't think of another Broadway musical that goes from 0 to 60 mph in ten seconds and maintains that pace for a solid two and a half hours. The cast gets a total aerobic workout, Wagner's computerized sets (which incorporate a series of dazzling LED displays) are a technological triumph, and the story still packs a wallop. Several other factors may reshape the audience's reaction to the plot:

  • Since 1981, Americans have grown increasingly obese. Therefore, the bovine rage that Jennifer Holliday brought to the original production with her hair-raising rendition of "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" may seem less shocking than it was 30 years ago.
  • The song "Heavy, Heavy" plays differently to an audience that can clearly see Effie's unhappiness and childish pouting projected onto television monitors via a live camera feed.
  • The increased presence of chubby chasers on the Internet (as well as in movies such as City Island, Hairspray, and Zuckerbaby) has changed the way many men look at large women.
  • The inclusion of the "Listen" number from the film version of Dreamgirls (the song has been reshaped into a powerful duet for Deena and Effie) gives additional gravitas to the second act, building a stronger emotional foundation for Effie's poignant reunion with the Dreams at their final appearance.
  • Thanks to Napster, iTunes, YouTube, and other wonders of the Internet age, the music industry has changed dramatically since the days when Payola ruled the record industry.
  • With Diana Ross now 66 years old and First Lady Michelle Obama the most visible African American fashion icon in the world, the parade of costumes seen throughout Dreamgirls takes on even greater importance as a period piece.
  • Who could ever forget Stephen Caffrey's Dreamgirls impersonation in 1989's Longtime Companion ?
  • The ability of gay men to lend an extra bit of camp and magic to an iconic moment is best captured in this video clip recorded during a gay cruise (when three dancers from a touring company of West Side Story flawlessly performed two musical numbers from the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls):

There's no doubt that, in the current production, the show's backstage crew has its hands full (although the moving scenery may be fully automated, each performance requires the cast of 26 to don a total of 305 costumes and 175 wigs). Under Robert Longbottom's energetic direction and choreography (aided by Shane Sparks), this new version of Dreamgirls is every bit as remarkable as the original. It incorporates all the magic of live theater in ways that will leave audiences nearly paralyzed with admiration. I was so jazzed up from the performance that I couldn't sleep for three hours after I got home from the theatre (and believe me, that doesn't happen very often).

The cast for this production of Dreamgirls is exceptionally strong. Syesha Mercado starts off meekly as a young Deena Jones who blossoms into a Diana Ross-like pop icon with Adrienne Warren and Margaret Hoffman as her backup singers. As the difficult Effie White, Moya Angela has no problem bringing down the house with a huge voice that serves her especially well in the Act I curtain number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Trevon Davis shines as Effie's songwriter brother, C.C. White.

Among the male leads, Milton Craig Nealy is suave as the loyal, old-school Marty, Chaz Lamar Shepherd is the snakelike Curtis Taylor, Jr., and Chester Gregory (a spectacular performer) owns the stage as rhythm and blues singer, James "Thunder" Early.

Dreamgirls continues in San Francisco through September 26 before heading out to tour dates in Atlanta, Miami, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Charlotte. This is a production that revitalizes a cherished and thrilling Broadway classic while encapsulating everything that is right and good about the culture of musical theatre.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape