— Karen Holness, Aurianna Angelique, and Starr Domingue. Photo by David Cooper.
The American Dream lies at the heart of most Broadway musicals, none more so than the aptly titled Dreamgirls, now playing at the Stanley. Though formulaic in its familiar conflict between the satisfactions of Making It and the personal costs the bitch-goddess Success requires, Dreamgirls stands out for a couple of reasons. It’s a show about black Americans whose dreams, historically, have been racially constrained. And it’s a thinly disguised story about Motown and The Supremes, whose music plays on the soundtrack of many of our lives.
Bill Millerd’s Arts Club production, featuring the rare Vancouver phenomenon of a large all-black cast, provides a snappy, entertaining version of the show with some standout performances and a few knockout moments that make you want to stand up and cheer.
The story revolves around the ambitions of a character called Curtis Taylor Jr., based on Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. Played with intense charisma by the excellent Daren Herbert, Curtis wants to remake black music and black performers so they will be attractive enough to white people to cross over onto the pop charts. He knows he has to be ruthless to win the game on the white man’s turf. He’ll pay the bribes that need to be paid, strictly control his artists and not worry about collateral damage.
His chosen vehicle is a female trio, The Dreamettes (Aurianna Angelique, Karen Holness and Starr Domingue). Curtis becomes their manager, has them sing backup behind soul star Jimmy Thunder, then slicks them up and sends them out on their own as The Dreams. He replaces their original lead singer, Effie White (Angelique), a big girl with a big voice, with the slimmer, lighter-voiced Deena Jones (Holness), whose career he cultivates at the expense of the group. This is the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, though biographical parallels mostly disappear in the second act.
Dreamgirls’ writers Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger diverge most radically from their real-life models in the character of Effie, based on The Supremes’ Florence Ballard. Ballard left the group in bitterness and died soon after. But Effie gets a chance at redemption and musically becomes the show’s central figure. Angelique, the Arts Club’s Effie, has terrific R&B chops. Her defiant solo “Love Me Baby” is the high point of the evening.
Ironically, soul power in Dreamgirls consistently upstages the blanched personas and colorless tunes that represent the supposed successes of Curtis’ crossover philosophy. Holness, Domingue and Crystal Balint (playing the singer who replaces Effie in The Dreams) all have good voices but their songs are almost instantly forgettable. What stays with you is the heavy funk of the guys doing “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” Effie’s gut-wrenching blues, and the soul-power anthem Jimmy Thunder sings when he gets fired by Curtis because his performances are just too black. Hector Johnson’s Jimmy, with James Brown hair and great moves, doesn’t show much vocal power until this number where he absolutely tears the roof off.
Veteran actors Tom Pickett and Alvin Sanders do solid work as various managers and impresarios, as does Ian Yuri Gardner as a nice guy songwriter, although he has to sing some of the show’s most awkward lyrics.
Sheila White’s lavish costumes nicely illustrate the evolution of the group from modest to glitzy to the wretched excess of late ’70s success. Valerie Easton’s slick Motownish choreography is a lot of fun, and Ken Cormier’s six-piece orchestra provides a good, full sound without trying to replicate Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers. Ted Roberts’ clean, mobile set and Marsha Sibthorpe’s sensitive lighting unobtrusively frame the action.
Dreamgirls doesn’t exploit the easy nostalgia on which so many musicals about this era rely. It offers an interesting take on the collision of ideas at a key moment in the development of contemporary music, and showcases some marvelous talent.