Ooh, do I sense backstage tension in the cast of Mad Cow Theatre's "Dreamgirls"?
It's early May — a month before the show opens — when I sit down with Orlando actresses Cherry Hamlin, Jasmine Thompson and Jayne Trinette. They'll portray the singers in the Dreams, a 1960s girl group a la The Supremes. But in the show, the Dreams travel a rocky road to success — full of illicit love, bribery and double-crossing deals.
In the real world, the three actresses have only recently met, and two of them have gone to lunch — without the third.
"I texted you," Hamlin insists, as Trinette — the non-luncher — shakes her head, teasing "No, ma'am, no ma'am."
They dissolve into laughter.
"We're just getting into character," Trinette says. "We're all ready to have fun."
The faux slight by her co-stars mirrors, in a much smaller way, the betrayal Trinette's Effie suffers in the story of "Dreamgirls." Effie starts as lead singer of the trio, but backstage intrigues leave her sidelined when Deena (played by Hamlin) and Lorrell (Thompson) hit the big time.
Mad Cow's production, directed by Ray Hatch, marks the first time in decades "Dreamgirls" has been locally produced in Central Florida. It opens June 7.
"I was telling everybody I know to come out for this show," Hamlin says. "It doesn't come along often, at least not in Orlando."
Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's musical debuted on Broadway in 1981 and made Jennifer Holliday, playing Effie, a star. The show won three Tony awards, including best actress for Holliday. In 2007 Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar playing Effie in the film adaptation.
Trinette says she isn't worried about comparisons to Hudson, who later made sadder headlines when her mother, brother and nephew were murdered.
"All that tragedy," Thompson murmurs, as Hamlin somberly shakes her head.
Trinette thinks a moment.
"The audience will understand that it will be different, that I'm different than Jennifer," she says. "My journey is different. It's going to be different because it's coming from me."
Not that there isn't some intimidation in tackling the role.
"You're already losing your mind and then you've got to sing that song," says Trinette, eyes widening.
That song is "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," a blistering anthem that has transcended musical theater thanks to Holliday's Grammy-winning single.
In the show, Effie sings it as it appears her manager is walking out on her — both personally and professionally. It's a song of defiance, loyalty, strength and pride.
"And I am telling you, I'm not going, even though the rough times are showing," Effie sings. "I'm staying and you, and you, and you ... you're gonna love me."
African-American women find a special strength in that song, the actresses agree, just as they do in the show itself.
With leading roles specifically for African-American actresses hard to come by, "Dreamgirls" has long been on their wish lists, they say.
"In general, it's not an African-American acting world," says Thompson, choosing her words deliberately. "I'm honored personally to have the opportunity to do this."
Part of the appeal is that the Dreams are glamorous, successful, tough — not victims or maids, the women say.
Thompson says she thinks the roles can help young black girls envision a better future for themselves.
"You look at those people and say, 'If they can do that, so can I,'" she says. "That's important."
Beyond female empowerment, "Dreamgirls" also has something to say about image and show business. In the musical, Effie is sidelined because she's fuller figured than the other singers in the group.
Playing those emotions could be challenging, Trinette says.
"You always have your personal rejection," she explains. "But everybody doesn't have to know about it."
Trinette, who toured with Disney's Broadway musical "The Lion King," now performs in the "Festival of Lion King" show at Animal Kingdom.
All three understand the ups and downs of show biz.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," says Hamlin, who is an entertainer at Universal Orlando.
"Things come, thing go. Shows close, shows open," Thompson adds. "We've all experienced it. I'm going through it right now." She had been performing at "Disney Channel Rocks" at Disney's Hollywood Studios — until the theme park closed the show in April.
Trinette has been waiting for years to play the "dream role" of Effie.
"I have auditioned for 'Dreamgirls' about four times," she says, hoofing it to regional theaters around the country. "I had to do this show."
In the end, the actresses say, "Dreamgirls" doesn't just appeal to women, or African-Americans, or entertainers.
"A lot of people love this show — everybody across all lines," Hamlin says.
That's because everyone loves an underdog like Effie, Trinette says. You can't help but root for someone who gets battered by life but picks herself up and reaches for the stars once again.
"In the show, Effie even says, 'This time Effie White's gonna win,'" says Trinette, shaking her fist for emphasis. "The audience gets to win with us."
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What: Mad Cow Theatre production of the Henry Krieger/Tom Eyen musical, directed by Ray Hatch
When: Opens June 7; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and two Mondays, June 17 and 24; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through July 7
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
Tickets: $25-$32; $2 discounts for seniors and students
Effie: Big-voiced and full-figured, proud Effie falls victim to personal and business machinations by those closest to her. "Because of the betrayal — she's young — she doesn't know what to do," says Jayne Trinette, her portrayer. "She just doesn't know what to do with all those emotions."
Deena: Looking for mainstream success, the Dreams' manager makes more conventionally beautiful Deena the group's star — pushing Effie aside. "It's just like life," says Cherry Hamlin, Deena's portrayer. "We're all complex personalities."
Lorrell: The quietest member of the Dreams, she tries unsuccessfully to play peacemaker when squabbles threaten to tear the group apart. "I'm personally a lot more outspoken than she comes across," says portrayer Jasmine Thompson.