Dreamgirls is a flashy dream

Dreamgirls 1

Chaz Lamar Shepherd is Curtis Taylor Jr. and Moya Angela is Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls, at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre through Sept. 26. Photos by Joan Marcus

Dreamgirls, as a movie, seemed apologetic that it was a musical at all. Set in the Motown-ish world of a Supremes-ish girl group, the story lends itself to abundant music without straining credibility. But on the Broadway stage, the music world was only a façade – the real music came from the musical, you know, when people actually sing about how they feel.

On screen, when Dreamgirls had to start singing about emotion rather than just sing, it got sheepish. Oh, please don’t mind us. We’re just going to emote for a minute. We’ll get back to the flashy editing and glitzy Beyoncé moments before you know it.

That’s not how Dreamgirls should live. This is a show that needs to be seen on the stage. The touring production of Dreamgirls now at the Curran Theatre (under the auspices of SHN) – the tour that opened last year at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre – is dazzling in many ways, but it truly gets that this is a performance work that needs to move and sing and only stop long enough to pour on the diva moments.

And this production, fully realized by director/choreographer Robert Longbottom, is smart enough to benefit from the flaws of the movie by making some key story and song changes.

Longbottom honors Michael Bennett’s original (and game changing) 1981 staging but takes it to the next, high-tech level. This isn’t a dusty old revival of Dreamgirls. It’s a re-imagining that breathes new life into a show that was beginning to feel musty from too many reverent re-stagings.

In place of Bennett’s dynamically moving columns, which gave a smooth, movie-like flow to the action, we have set designer Robin Wagner’s giant high-def video panels (the media design is by Howard Werner/Lightswitch), which whisk us from on stage to backstage in seconds. They take us on ratty bus tour through the U.S. or a European tour to London and Paris. These astonishingly vivid and bright screens also augment Ken Billington’s lighting design by re-creating stages around the country (and the world).

There’s always a danger with video that it’s going to be too much flash. We don’t want to feel overwhelmed, as you might feel at a rock concert, because we’re here to experience a story and characters. But Longbottom uses the screens brilliantly (in every sense), and they help focus the attention and keep the show moving at the brisk pace it needs.

In many ways this Dreamgirls feels like the spawn of Jersey Boys, which itself was influenced by Bennett’s original Dreamgirls. You can sense Longbottom sitting and watching Des McAnuff’s staging of Jersey Boys and thinking to himself, “Imagine how a dynamic approach like this, with high-tech video and sleek movement might benefit a show like, oh, say, Dreamgirls!”

Dreamgirls 2 (Jimmy)Longbottom was also smart to incorporate a song from the movie that, while it was used ineffectively on screen, adds a great deal of dimension, emotion and closure to the show. When superstar Beyoncé signed on to play Deena Jones, the pretty member of the trio who ends up pushing Effie White (the heavy one with the extraordinary voice) into the background, the powers that be decided that Beyoncé needed her diva moment.

Effie’s big moment is the legendary “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” She belts that anthem of clinging weakness at the end of Act 1, and the show might as well be over. She has one big moment near the top of Act 2 with “I Am Changing,” but she doesn’t have much else to do after that.

For Miss Beyoncé, composer Henry Kreiger (book writer and lyricist Tom Eyen died in 1991) and a committee concocted a lite version of “And I Am Telling You” called “Listen” (and hey, we may be able to release it as a single!). The problem was that Dreamgirls is Effie’s story. Deena doesn’t deserve a diva moment because it’s not her damn show.

So for this version, the song becomes the 11 o’clock number the show always lacked. Deena has fallen into the same man trap that snared Effie years before. Effie has taken control of her life and is moving on, and though the women allowed their deep friendship to rupture, Effie can offer some of her strength to Deena — and she does that in their duet, “Listen.”

The song still doesn’t hold a candle to “And I Am Telling You,” but it serves a higher purpose now with its reinforcement of the female bond and the empowerment that bond can offer.

The cast in this production is terrific (Wednesday’s opening-night performance had some sound issues, however), most notably Moya Angela as Effie and Chester Gregory (seen above right) as the nearly show-stealing James “Thunder” Early.

But in all fairness to the efficient ensemble, this show is stolen by Longbottom’s staging and, most fabulously, by William Ivey Long’s breathtaking parade of costumes. There’s a sequence in Act 2, from “I Am Changing” through “One More Picture Please” that is a gown paradise complete with glitter and surprises – you might even say it’s a dream. A dream with glorious girls.

Please enjoy this video sneak peek.

Dreamgirls continues through Sept. 26 at the Curran Theatre, , San Francisco. Shows are at 8pm Tuesdays-Saturdays and 2pm Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 SHN-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.