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'Dreamgirls' is stunning, but lacks grit

Baltimore Sun

There's a moment in the national tour of "Dreamgirls" currently running at the Hippodrome Theatre that perfectly captures the mingling of Motown and money that is the musical's main theme.

In "Steppin' to the Bad Side," inventively choreographed by Shane Sparks, the stage goes dark, and a group of African-American men don glow-in-the-dark Stetsons and suitcoats and carry briefcases outlined on the front with fluorescent tape.

All those green rectangles suddenly take on a resemblance to old-fashioned box radios. No sooner does this observation register, then the men form a circle and start to spin. They snap open the cases, remove phonograph records and pass them hand to hand. They move faster and faster, forming a giant circle of colored light, while images of dollar bills and LPs are flashed into the five giant LED screens that form the set.

The effect is sinister - and stunning.

Though "Dreamgirls" could have used a few more numbers as inspired as this one, this revival of the 1981 hit overall is engaging and well-sung. The musical, which later became a 2006 film of the same name, traces the rise to fame of a glamorous girl group based on the Supremes, and occasionally suffers from the sheer magnitude of its ambitions. "Dreamgirls" attempts to do nothing less than chronicle the development of the black music industry in mid-century America in less than 150 minutes. At times, the frantic pace shows.

As the first act ends, an overweight, temperamental but ferociously talented singer named Effie White has just been booted from the Dreams, in part because she is less photogenic than her slender counterparts. At the beginning of the second act, Effie already has begun to cobble together a life and a career. But the audience is never shown the painful realizations and difficult emotional work that would have made such a transformation possible.

Both the elegantly streamlined set by Robin Wagner (who created the backdrops for the original production) and William Ivey Long's 580 costumes help the audience to fluidly make the necessary transitions.

The Dreams perform in front of five floor-to-ceiling moving LED screens on which atmospheric images are projected, and they are especially effective during a nationwide bus tour in which the audience seems to "cross" San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Long's sequined gowns are dazzling, they subtly move the audience forward in time from the 1950s to the disco era.

Director Robert Longbottom went with relatively inexperienced performers for the Dreams, and he has a real find in Moya Angela, a young singer whose only prior professional experience is as an ensemble member for a touring production of "The Lion King."

Angela plays Effie, who in the show is shoved aside in favor of the more camera-friendly Deena Jones (played by Syesha Mercado). Angela's voice is so big and so rich that she almost seems to occupy a different category than the other singers. Effie's signature number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is delivered with such intensity that it is almost painful to watch. But, her more modulated performance in "I Am Changing" was even more moving to my ears, because it allowed the audience to appreciate the tones and colors of Angela's fabulous instrument.

Actor Chester Gregory not only boasts an impressive baritone, he clearly has immense fun with the role of James "Thunder" Early, a singer known for his on-stage antics. Gregory combines a heavy dose of Little Richard's uninhibited showmanship with dashes of James Brown and Otis Redding. But I'd like to have seen more of the rage and self-destructive impulses that lie beneath the character's clowning.

Similarly, Chaz Lamar Shepherd, in the role of a sleazy manager widely thought to be based on Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., is convincingly dominating, but he lacks the calculating charisma of a modern-day Svengali.

Mercado, who placed third on the seventh season of "American Idol," has been cast in the Diana Ross role. The actress has a pleasant, light pop voice and a luminousness, an inner radiance, that compels an audience to take her character instantly into our hearts. Mercado is less adept, however, at portraying the hard-nosed self-interest that lay behind the lovely facade. Whatever your opinion of Diana Ross, she was nobody's patsy.

Director Robert Longbottom has said he hopes to take this production to Broadway once the national tour wraps up this summer, and overall, what his production needs is a little more grit, a little more rage, a little more steppin' to the bad side.

The miracle that is Motown would never have been possible without it.

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