Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia inspires audiences to dream big with its spectacular "Dreamgirls" production, now on stage and continuing through Nov. 12.
The show, featuring a high-energy cast of singers and dancers, tells of a singing trio on their journey from a musical nowhere ghetto to chart-topping divas.
This re-telling of Michael Bennett's ground-breaking 1981 Broadway musical foreshadows rock opera with a story told almost entirely through song.
About 30 musical numbers — most of them from the Broadway original score by Harry Krieger and Tom Eyen — are given new life in Toby's production by singers and dancers in solo vocals, duets and choruses, accentuated with exuberant dance movement.
Ringside seating in Toby's theater presents an ocean-like breeze as dancers whirl by, circling the outer limits of the performance space. Among these are high-kicking, back-flipping male dancers, and female dancers who communicate the essence of this fable with unflagging energy and deliciously choreographed saucy humor.
Director Kevin McAllister adroitly moves complex action at a brisk pace without chaos, maintaining a distinctive balance. With a subtle touch, McAllister maintains clarity through a variety of disparate interchanges between friends and strangers, all the while keeping the Dreamgirls' priorities at the forefront.
McAllister's collaboration with choreographer Shalyce Hemby is smartly paced and smooth. Hemby's choreography is joyous, synchronized to each song and sharply interpreted by dancers with megawatt energy.
Music director Ross Scott Rawlings masterfully conducts Toby's Broadway level six-musician band, alternating with Nathan Scavilla. The band supports individual vocalists to deliver numbers in distinctive hue and style.
Scene designer David Hopkins' minimalist set works perfectly to convey numerous venues and is enhanced by Lynn Joslin's compatible lighting.
Set in the 1960s, the story tells of the struggles and triumphs of the trio of singers who escape the ghetto through talent to achieve national fame. Calling themselves the Dreams, the three singers deal with some nasty business from their tough, hard-driving manager, Curtis — who courts singer Effie only to drop her later because she does not conform to his vision of glamorous success.
Owning the role of Effie, Crystal Freeman has a remarkably powerful voice that moves the audience. From her first number to the end of Act 1 when she belts out a show-stopping "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," Freeman conveys Effie's confidence in her own ability. Such focus enables her to dismiss detractors, though her dependence on Curtis reveals vulnerability. In Act 2, Effie's self-affirmation is expressed in "I Am Changing" and completed with "One Night Only."
Manager Curtis is played by DeCarlo Raspberry, who knows his way around a song and creates a multi-dimensional character not without charm.
Effie's sister, Deena is beautifully realized by Sequina Dubose, who summons Deena's modest dignity and initially unveiled glamour while revealing a lighter but stunning voice capable of commanding power when required. Her full glamour is revealed as she gains maturity to identify with Effie's spiritual growth.
Lorrell is fully captured by Ashley Johnson, first as a naive girl with undeniable sparkle and vocal talent — and later transitioning into an adult woman encouraging others to succeed.
In this large-cast show, every performer contributes fully to the production's overall success, although we can mention only a few standouts. The "last Dream" to arrive, Michelle, is exquisitely captured by Denae Fielder, who sounds as beautiful as she looks in each gorgeous gown.
As James "Thunder" Early, Brian Jeffrey is phenomenal. Jeffrey combines the flair of both James Brown and Prince — whom he actually resembles. His soulful singing and incredible dancing include a break-out moment when "Thunder" returns to his original soul home in "Rap."
Making a Toby's debut, Da'Von Moody is outstanding as C.C. White, Effie's younger-brother. Moody helps deliver the show's most touching songs: "Family" and "I Miss You, Old Friend."
Always adding formidable stage presence, Anwar Thomas is a standout in what could be a minor role as Marty. The part becomes major with Thomas' charisma and standout vocal ability.