Curtis Taylor Jr. — a wily used-car salesman turned showbiz hustler — perhaps says it all when, early in the musical "Dreamgirls," he explains: "The American concept of success is represented by a three-letter word known to every child: Big."
"Dreamgirls," the 1981 hit Broadway musical that opened Friday at Mad Cow Theatre, is all about the idea of big: Big dreams, big disappointments, big voices and the drive to make it big.
At first glance, the larger-than-life story may seem at odds with Mad Cow's intimate theater but the production, under the direction of Ray Hatch, finds an appealing gritty strength in its up-close-and-personal approach.
The weaknesses are those often found in big musicals, such as the occasional distracting sound issue. The large cast — 21 performers — means not every actor in the ensemble is as polished as is typical at Mad Cow. And Hatch lets his leading actors sometimes pitch their movements and expressions too broadly, as if they're playing to a much larger house.
But Hatch also has helped his actors find more heart in their roles than provided by the vignette-like script, which depicts moments in the characters' lives across 13 years. And his choreography succeeds wonderfully: making good use of the Mad Cow stage, showing off his actors well, evoking the 1960s and '70s without parodying them, and progressing from innocent to more adult movement — just as the ladies at the heart of the story mature.
In "Dreamgirls," the members of a singing trio (think the Supremes) face personal and professional upheaval as they reach for the stars.
Jayne Trinette finds humor in big-voiced Effie's prickliness. Her signature "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is not as vocally histrionic as some renditions — and emotionally stronger for that. Cherry Hamlin smartly shows her character's inner struggle as her face snaps from thinking, feeling woman to Barbie-like blankness each time her Deena faces the public. Jasmine Thompson, as the trio's youngest singer, nicely captures the impulsiveness of youth, as well as the regret and the strength.
The leading men hold their own. Van Dobbins is a focused Curtis. Clinton Harris has real comic flair as a scrappy funk singer. And Dwayne Allen has an important grounded presence as Marty, a business manager with moral conviction.
Also in starring roles: the costumes by Mike & Kathy Buck Designs and Afro-tastic wigs by Janet and Ron Wolek. From groovy to glitzy, the sequined gowns, gauzy scarves and psychedelic patterned pantsuits inspire both applause and, if you're of a certain age, an involuntary shudder at the memories.
The minimalistic scenic design by Douglas Gessaman focuses attention on the human drama. But the old-school microphones, limp stage curtains and downscale dressing-room mirrors cleverly remind the audience that even in showbiz — perhaps especially in showbiz — dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be.
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the musical by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger
• Length: 2:40, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and two Mondays, June 17 and 24; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through July 7
• Tickets: $25-$32; $2 discounts for seniors and students
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: madcowtheatre.com