Rapturously greeted when it opened on Broadway 35 years ago, the musical "Dreamgirls" remains a potent magnet for performers and audiences.
Some of us — OK, that would be me — have never entirely fallen under its spell, finding the characters insufficiently fleshed out, the plot cluttered and the song quality uneven. Still, there's no missing the kinetic charge in this tale of R&B and Motown-type artists struggling to make it big.
And there sure is no mistaking the cumulative force of the "Dreamgirls" revival from ArtsCentric now onstage in the intimate theater at Motor House, the cool, new office/studio/performance building in Station North.
ArtsCentric, the self-described "color-conscious" company founded more than a decade ago by Morgan State University students and alumni, has explored an impressive range of works, providing valuable experience for minority actors, directors, backstage staffers and others.
Over the years, the ensemble has utilized several venues around the area for its productions, with varying results. The Motor House theater promises to be an ideal home base for the troupe, and "Dreamgirls" makes an ideal calling card for ArtsCentric's arrival in the neighborhood.
The musical's story line — all too thinly based on the history of The Supremes — concerns The Dreamettes, a trio determined to break into the music biz, facing assorted fissures and pressures along the way. Much of the drama revolves around full-figured lead singer Effie White and the behavior — too diva-ish, too inflexible about career paths — that leads to her fall from grace.
In the ArtsCentric staging, two singers alternate as Effie, a role originated on Broadway by Jennifer Holliday. Latisha Hamilton, featured in the performance I caught, has the vocal chops and the emotional punch for the most famous song in the score, the Act 1 showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." I'd argue that the better Effie solo, in words and music, is Act 2's "I Am Changing," which Hamilton nails vibrantly.
As Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-inspired member of The Dreamettes, Sequina DuBose catches the character's journey from timidity to confidence. She has particular fun with the "One More Picture Please" scene after the act evolves into Deena Jones and the Dreams (the poses are vintage Supremes). And DuBose uses her warm, solid voice to expressive effect throughout.
Alana Linsey makes a lively, funny Lorrell, the third member of the group that, guided by self-made manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (a suave Shaun Mykals), gradually makes it into the spotlight.
Bryan Jeffrey rips up the joint inhabiting the James Brown-infused character Jimmy Early. The fearless actor's physical dexterity and natural flair for humor is matched by an infectious vocal exuberance (his terrific bursts of falsetto threaten to reach dog whistle heights).
Some of the acting and/or singing in the rest of the ensemble is rough, but the weaker links prove to be a minor matter. (The night I was there, an erratic sound system proved to be more problematic.)
ArtsCentric's artistic director, Kevin S. McAllister, directs the more than two dozen performers with a sure hand, ensuring a taut pace and utilizing nearly every inch of performance space. The overall impression is a company operating on all cylinders in a comfortable space.
Musical director Cedric D. Lyles contributes admirably to the show's solid foundation. One measure of that comes in the polished harmonizing done by the singers.
Other than a few occasional props, Jeff Harrison's simple set design consists of three revolving doors; projections (by Riki K) add splashes of atmosphere. Even more splashes come from the costumes (Sierra Evans) and well-honed choreography (Shalyce Hemby).
I'll always find "Dreamgirls" frustrating. For a show that borrows from Motown history, very little sounds truly Motown (the clunky "Heavy" wouldn't have got past the door in Detroit), and the cliches do pile up. But its heart is in the right place, and so is ArtCentric's production.