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From left, Sequina Dubose as Deena, Crystal Freeman as Effie, Ashley Johnson as Lorrell in Toby's Dinner Theatre's production of "Dreamgirls." User Upload Caption: Toby's Dreamgirls - Original Credit:
From left, Sequina Dubose as Deena, Crystal Freeman as Effie, Ashley Johnson as Lorrell in Toby's Dinner Theatre's production of "Dreamgirls." User Upload Caption: Toby's Dreamgirls - Original Credit: (HANDOUT)

If a production of "Dreamgirls" s going to live up to its soulful potential, it needs a big-voiced talent in the role of Effie Melody White. It also needs enough glitzy gowns to remind spectators of a 1960s-vintage Motown revue. The boisterous staging of this Broadway musical at Toby's Dinner Theatre is blessed to have Crystal Freeman as its Effie and it has so many sequin-rich, slinky dresses by costume designer Lawrence B. Munsey that the entire show often resembles a fashion runway.

Although the three-member girl-group that's at the heart of the musical melodrama in "Dreamgirls" is called The Dreams, the book and lyrics by Tom Eyen are not exactly reticent with nudging reminders that we're watching a biography of the Supremes. Deena Jones (Sequina DuBose), Effie Melody White (Freeman) and Lorrell Robinson (Ashley Johnson) are an aspiring trio who pay their apprenticeship dues and then become big stars. Their crassly pragmatic management team decides that the beautifully slender and also thin-voiced Deena should front the group and the full-figured and terrifically full-voiced Effie should be replaced by another backup singer. Shouting matches, tears and many costume changes ensue.

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This is where Harry Krieger's savvy score gives Crystal Freeman ample opportunity to vocally register Effie's unhappiness. When she belts "(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going" and "I Am Changing," there is no doubt who has the best voice in The Dreams. There are moments in Freeman's dramatic performance that would benefit from a tad more nuance, but "Dreamgirls" admittedly is a show in which over-the-top performance is the norm. Also, the show itself bounces around between so many dressing rooms, concert halls and other venues that the script does not exactly encourage introspection on the part of either the characters or, for that matter, the audience.

The Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission recognizes the important role it plays in promoting arts and helping nurture the bonds of our community, long described as a "garden for growing people." By putting the arts at the center of Columbia's original plan and the new plan for Downtown Columbia, we have shown where our values lie. Now we must ensure we carry these values forward throughout the years and decades ahead.

What matters most is the music, of course, and these Dreams and their sharply dressing male and female supporting performers move around every bit of the staging area at Toby's with a lot of energy thanks to the astute traffic management by director Kevin McAllister, choreographer Shalyce Hembey and musical director Ross Scott Rawlings. Considering that "Dreamgirls" has a three-hour running time, it moves along quickly and always keeps your eyes and ears busy.

There are times when all of that frantic stage activity overwhelms a specific dialogue exchange or song lyric, but this is never an obstacle to enjoying the show. After all, the showbiz bio format is so familiar that it's easy to track every dreamy musical high and nightmarish personal low experienced by The Dreams. Just the same, it might help matters if the overall sound level were brought down a notch at times in order to better showcase dramatic moments worth savoring. As is, this "Dreamgirls" could justifiably be renamed "Screamgirls."

The uniformly capable supporting cast has its share of noteworthy performances. An audience favorite who really earns his applause is Bryan Jeffrey as James Thunder Early. This flashy character is an established star who originally selects The Dreams to appear as part of his touring revue. Their personal and professional lives become intertwined in ways that provide a lot of soap opera material. Jeffrey exudes non-stop song-and-dance energy in numbers including "Fake Your Way to the Top." The songs performed by James Thunder Early and his egocentric personality are what prompted virtually every production of "Dreamgirls " over the years to present this character as a James Brown imitation. That definitely comes across in the Toby's production, but Jeffrey's physical appearance and some of his stage moves may remind you of Prince. Well, talent is talent, so it's a really entertaining performance.

All of the supporting performances have enough energy to make for a very effective group of singers and dancers swirling around behind James Thunder Early and The Dreams. Among the ensemble numbers that shine are "Cadillac Car," "Steppin' to the Bad Side" and "Rap."

Longtime residents thinking back on the 50-year history of Columbia have a lot to contemplate. If they really want to get the memories flowing, they should visit the exhibit "The HeART of Columbia: Creating community with art" at the Rouse Co. Foundation Gallery at Howard Community College.

There's one performance, however, that also stands out for its dramatic effectiveness. DeCarlo Raspberry incisively captures the cold-blooded quality of a management team member named Curtis Taylor, Jr. Show business is a business, of course, and Taylor makes it clear that personal considerations are subordinate to financial decisions. One of the sharper-edged aspects of Tom Eyen's book is that "Dreamgirls" illustrates how the managers of black soul singers in the 1950s and 1960s pushed them to go beyond the traditional R&B circuit and break through to a more mainstream (meaning white) national audience.

Speaking of illustration, the Toby's production is enhanced by video and photographic projections on a number of screens located on the theater walls. Some of this imagery features specific cities that would be visited by a touring musical revue, while more non-specific imagery conjures up the hectic light shows that one would expect at a high-energy concert.

"Dreamgirls" runs through Nov. 12 at Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to www.tobysdinnertheatre.com



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