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.

Frenchie Davis ready for `Misbehavin’

When her stint on season two of “American Idol” flared into controversy, Frenchie Davis became infamous. The promising young singer had been kicked off early on because of some risqué photos found on the Internet.

The singer managed to turn that infamy into hard-won fame through sheer hard work and by maintaining a focus on what was really important to her.

Her answer to all that media fuss was to turn to theater. She was offered a part in the long-running Broadway musical Rent, and she took it. She parlayed that into a West Coast tour of Dreamgirls that brought her to Sacramento and San Jose.

She’s back in the Bay Area as part of an ongoing series of former “American Idol” contestants performing at the Rrazz Room, a posh cabaret in the Hotel Nikko.

Davis performs through Aug. 2 with a rotating roster of “Idol” kids, and at 29, it’s clear Davis has done a whole lot of growing up since she was last here.

“My sanity is important to me,” Davis says. “I like the fact that I’ve been able to do what I love and still enjoy my life. I can tell you, I have crossed paths and met so many women who are way richer than I am, way more famous, but they don’t enjoy their lives more than I do. They’re miserable, empty shells, thoroughly Botoxed. They don’t even remember who they were when they got into the business.”

During the media melee that erupted during her post-“Idol” days, Davis says she nearly forgot who she was – a girl from Inglewood, California, who didn’t grow up with much money – and what she loved.

“I don’t want to lose my love for this, for performing,” she says. “Most black girls started singing in church. I started in musicals. I always was a little theater queen. I genuinely got into this business because I love to sing. I can’t even describe what it feels like when I’m on stage and I open my mouth. When I’m in a bad mood, I turn on some Aretha and sing along, and I’m over it. By track 4 I’m over it.”

After the Dreamgirls tour, Davis went back to Rent and ended staying four years and nearly driving herself to exhaustion. The grind of eight shows a week on Broadway wore her down, and she developed polyps on her vocal chords and had to have surgery.

But all the hard work also resulted in a slimmer Davis, who is a whole dress size smaller than the last time we saw her around here four years ago.

“Part of it was doing eight shows a week and having a New York Sports Club right next to the theater,” she says. “The other part is about my grandmother, who passed away with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. On her deathbed, she made me and my mother promise to be good to ourselves.”

Davis still appreciates her big girl status – “My curves are sexy. I like them and my boyfriends like them.” – but she has a greater appreciation for fitness than she used to.

“Trust me, I’m not trying to be thin, not even a little bit,” she says. “I want to keep my dress size in the double digits. I’d be happy with a 14 to a 16. This is about pushing my body to the limit. Doing theater, if you can’t sing and dance without running out of breath, you’re in trouble. I’ll tell you this: an hour of cardio workout followed by the steam room opens me up, and I can sing anything.”

A hit on the gay pride circuit around the world (she just returned from Carnivale in Rio), Davis will record some dance music. “I owe that to my gays,” she says. But as for a debut album, she’s still soul searching on that topic.

“Everyone says, `Frenchie, you gotta do an album,’ but I just don’t know,” she says. “The recording industry comes with so much stuff, and nothing that has to do with music. You know, Nell Carter never recorded an album, but we know how fabulous she was. If I keep working to make it better, people will remember my contribution to the arts. I truly believe my contributions to the world will be outside of music. Like the Frenchie Davis School of the Arts. I’ll definitely have a legacy.”

When Davis headed to “Idol” land, she left Howard University in Washington, D.C., about 30 credits shy of her diploma. Education is important to her, and she had planned on going back to finish this fall. But then musical theater interfered. Instead of hitting the books, she’ll be hitting the road, along with “American Idol” Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard in a production of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’.

“I’ll go back to school in the fall of ’09,” Davis says. “I can still work on the weekends. And I won’t be a poor student again. I remember that was like. I’ll have the time and money to finish the degree right.”

In the meantime she’s looking forward to touring with her good friend Studdard.

“Ruben’s my boo!” she trills. “When we were on the show we hung out a lot. Us and Rickey Smith and some of the other kids. Everybody else, well, let’s just say they were advanced. Maybe in college I had a glass of wine or smoked a joint, but I didn’t dabble beyond that. Some of those other kids were advanced. They’d be full out. And me and Ruben and Ricky, Nashika and Julie and some others would be playing cards in my room. We didn’t have time for shenanigans.”

When her show business shenanigans are over, Davis says she’s turning toward making a difference in the world like her father, who works with a human rights organization in Darfur. She may even get a master’s degree in international affairs at NYU.

“You know, I’m not 23 anymore. I’m not even 25,” Davis says. “I’m thinking about my life goals, not just career goals. When do I want to become a mother? I don’t want to wait ’til I’m 40 to have kids. And theater takes such a toll on the voice and body. I have to figure out what I’m going to do when my body says to me, `Bitch, I’m not doing eight shows a week anymore.’ In the theater, you can’t fake it. It has to be real, and I want to keep it real and then move on.”

For information: Frenchie Davis appears with other former “American Idol” contestants Rickey Smith, Julia DeMato and Trenyce today (July 25) through Sunday (July 26) and with RJ Helton, Julia DeMato and Trenyce July 29-August 2. The Rrazz Room is in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.

Grammy’s `Awakening’

With an archaic-sounding category such as the Best Musical Show Album, it’s no wonder the award (and the winners) don’t make it onto the prime-broadcast.

Still, there are those of us who care about show tunes (the REAL alternative music), and we care deeply that Spring Awakening writers Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (lyrics) won the 2008 Grammy in that horrible-sounding category (why can’t it be Best Original Cast Recording?). Spring Awakening beat out A Chorus Line, Company, Grey Gardens and West Side Story.

Music writer and fellow blogger Jim Harrington was at the Grammys and called me Sunday afternoon when Sheik and Sater accepted their award (during the lengthy pre-prime-time awards when most of the winners are announced). Read his full coverage of the event on the Concert Blog.

In other show tune-related Grammy news, Henry Krieger and Siedah Garrett won in the category Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media for “Love You I Do” from the movie Dreamgirls.

Jennifer Holliday: Happy at last

For Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie White in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, life has had its share of nightmare moments.

Only 19 when the tumultuous Dreamgirls development process began, and 21 when the show opened in 1981, Holliday became an instant Broadway legend as soon as audiences heard her sing the show’s standout anthem, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Holliday stayed with the show for three years, and though she won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical, she was unhappy and isolated — a long way away from her Houston, Texas, roots.

And her weight was an issue. Holliday has estimated that at her heaviest, she was 330 pounds or more.

After a string of failures — her recording career never took off, a Broadway-bound show about Mahalia Jackson self-destructed, her nine-month marriage ended in divorce — Holliday attempted suicide on her 30th birthday.

“I caught a lot of bad breaks,” Holliday says in a phone interview. “Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was other people’s stuff. And there’s my accountability for my own faults and mistakes. I’m making no excuses for anything.”

Diagnosed with clinical depression, Holliday began to turn her life around. She lost nearly 150 pounds (through diet and, later, gastric bypass surgery) and bounced back.

The bounce didn’t take her to Dreamgirls heights, but she has managed to eke out a career.

“My primary living has been through corporate dates — private concerts — and events for the gay community,” says Holliday, 47. “A lot of people think I disappeared, but I’ve been working.”

When the movie version of Dreamgirls finally came out last year — 25 years after Holliday’s splash on Broadway — she was back in the news expressing unhappiness about having been shut out of the movie (only Loretta Devine, another of the original Dreamgirls, made a cameo in the film).

“My anger was directed against Paramount and (director) Bill Condon, the people who tried to say: `She’s too old, let’s forget about her and everything she did and built and struggled for and fought for.’ ”

But Holliday has let her anger subside. One thing that helped was singing “And I Am Telling You…” on a BET awards show earlier this year with Jennifer Hudson — “the other Jennifer” — who won an Oscar for playing Effie, the part Holliday helped create.

The two divas stood side by side and belted out the song as if their lives depended on it.

“That was a victorious thing for me,” Holliday says. “More like an Ali-Frazier fight. I was like, `OK, we’re gonna part as friends, but one will leave with the other’s ass kicked.’ For me, this was a victory bout — one for the veterans, the people my age and older who don’t want to be forgotten. We can still do what we do and not be put out to pasture.”

All the attention from the Dreamgirls movie has given Holliday’s career a bump. She’s performing more concerts now, and Saturday (Nov. 24) she’s at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Of course she’ll sing her Dreamgirls songs, as well as some of the R&B selections from her various albums and some jazz standards, including a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

“Whatever I’ve gone through, for whatever reason, I sing better now because of it,” Holliday says. “I would have liked to have not gone through a lot of those things, but I have to admit, my music and songs have more meaning for me now. I think I sing from a different place.”

A resident of Harlem, Holliday does not have a manager or a publicist. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. She does have a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thejenniferholliday), and she checks it during weekly visits to Kinko’s.

“I’m rebuilding my career,” she says. “I’m finally learning how to make my life work as a human being, even with my depression, even with my career not being where I’d like it to be. Through MySpace and YouTube, I have made new fans, young fans. I have a new lease on life, if not success. The true success story is that I’m alive. That’s the greatest thing I can tell you at this point.”

This Dreamgirl, Holliday says, is happy at last.

“What the future holds, I can’t tell you,” she says. “But I do know at this moment, I’m the happiest I’ve been for so many years.”

Jennifer Holliday performs in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $37.50 to $77.50. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.theempireplushroom.com for information.

Oscar, You’re the One That I want

The Academy Awards came and went without making much impression. Ellen DeGeneres was fun, just as you’d expect.

The nicest surprise to me was the best foreign film winner, The Lives of Others. Fantastic movie. Deserves every prize there is.

Enjoyed watching best supporting actress winner Jennifer Hudson wipe the floor with Miss Beyonce during the Dreamgirls best song medley. Glad none of those songs won because they’re just not as good as the songs from the original show. Sad that Randy Newman’s “Our Town” (a fine, sad song from Cars about the death of the American small town) didn’t win, although I can’t begrudge Melissa Etheridge anything.

Loved Ellen’s line: “Without blacks, gays and Jews, there’d be no Oscars…or guys named Oscar for that matter.”

If you were watching the Academy Awards instead of “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” well good for you. If you’re not reading Seth Rudetsky’s weekly wrap-up on Playbill.com, you’re missing out. Go there now.

Here’s a sample of Mr. Rudetsky’s (right) brilliance (and whey he’s so much more fun than the actual show:

First of all, from the low cut-ness of the negligees the girls were spilling out of, I thought it was going to be a medley from Boobs: The Musical (which actually played the Triad Theatre). Zowee! Also, they cut the “Fongool” lyric. I know it’s an Italian curse, but nevertheless I felt gypped. I was sitting on my couch saying out loud to no one, “Where’s the fongool?” Not unlike the time I saw the “Evita” movie and was in a rage asking, “Where’s the aristocracy?” (“All my descamisados expect me to outshine the enemy, [the aristocracy]. I won’t disappoint them!”) Why did Madonna cut that lyric? And, on a related note, didn’t the real Eva Peron have a vibrato? Why didn’t the movie version?

Apparently this week there was singing, dancing and acting by all the potential Sandys. Now aren’t you glad you didn’t watch. Oh, and the special guest was Frankie Avalon.

The cuts were: Kate Rockwell and Kevin Greene. Next week – can you believe there’s a next week? — it’s all about the Dannys.

In the `Dreamgirls’ groove

As I understand it, my responsibility as a blogger is that elusive thing called BUZZ.

That said, let me buzz a little about Dreamgirls, which I saw last week after spending much of the year in jittery anticipation of its arrival.

First off, I love that the movie is dedicated to the memory of Michael Bennett, the director and co-producer/co-choreographer of the original 1981 Broadway production. Bennett’s fluid style was all over Dreamgirls in the way songs, scenes and dialogue flowed seamlessly, one into the other.

I’m not going to do a full-on review of Bill Condon’s movie except to say that it’s good, and parts of it are great. On the continuum of recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations, it’s not as good as Chicago, but it’s a whole lot better than Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera.

Jennifer Hudson (left) as Effie Melody White steals the show (as any good Effie should — this really is her story) and wipes the floor with Miss Beyonce, who couldn’t look more fabulous. But let me say that she and Diana Ross have more in common than they know.

American Conservatory Theater grad Anika Noni Rose is pretty wonderful, as is Eddie Murphy, whose final musical number is fantastic

Amid all the flash and spectacle of Dreamgirls, there are still issues: is this a real-life drama set in the music industry with lots of musical numbers? Or is this a full-on musical where people .burst into song when they might otherwise speak like normal people?

There’s some squeamishness about these issues in Dreamgirls, and all the fancy editing and flashing lights in the world can’t disguise that.

Still, it’s pretty great to be discussing a big musical this holiday season, so go see Dreamgirls and turn it into a box-office success so they’ll keep turning Broadway shows into movies.

In fact, you can see Dreamgirls early — if you want to pony up $25 (which includes a souvenir program) — when it opens Dec. 15 at the Metreon in San Francisco as part of a limited engagement “road show” in SF, New York and Los Angeles. Click here for more information.

‘Dreamgirls’ sneak peek

Who knew that right under my very nose I had a spy!

My new co-worker, Dino-Ray, read my previous blog item about Dreamgirls and casually let slip that HE’D ACTUALLY SEEN THE MOVIE ALREADY!

So herewith are some of Dino’s thoughts on Dreamgirls. Keep in mind this is not a review but merely a taste for those of us anxious for this movie to be brilliant. You should also know that in addition to being a snappy dresser, Dino is young — when I asked if he’d seen Grease, he said, “You mean the old movie?”

Take it away, Dino:

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to catch a test screening
for Dreamgirls…and it was a wonderful journey through the bellows
of ’50s girl groups, ’60s mellowness, ’70s mirrorballed glamour and
most of all, it was the epitome of divaism.

Honestly, I thought it was a breath of musical fresh air from previous
movie musicals like Rent and Phantom. But I wasn’t necessarily wowed
by it. I loved the music and I loved how Beyonce wasn’t the main
focus of the film. Well, she eventually became the main focus in the
second half. As for the “American Idol” alum, Jennifer Hudson, she
amazed me. She was sassy, she outsang Beyonce and she has some decent
acting skills. And by the way, Beyonce said the “F” word and smoked a
cigarette in the cut I saw. So much for that good-girl sex kitten
I don’t want to say that any of these actors had an Oscar-worthy
performance or anything, but Hudson did well for her first time out
of the gates. In fact, at the end of the first act when she sang
“And I Am Telling You” the whole audience started clapping as if we
were at an actual Broadway production. That was pretty damn good.
She gave the song that was originally perfected by Jennifer Holliday
a lot of justice.

I absolutely enjoyed the music. I am a big fan of funk, R&B, soul and
all that stuff, so that part of the movie was a huge plus for me. There
were times when I actually wanted them to sing rather than act and
vice versa. So that imbalance didn’t sit too well with me.
Nonetheless, there may be an Oscar hidden in the veins of this movie
somewhere — I just can’t figure out where.

The audience was very receptive to that, but when the characters
burst out into song out of nowhere, everyone in the audience started
giggling. For one, I thought this was immature, because it’s a musical.
Wouldn’t people expect that? Even so, I partly agree with
the audience, because these moments were a bit awkward. A lot of it
didn’t flow too well (i.e. the transitions from the musical numbers
to acting – it was a bit abrupt). But I did see a version of the
film that is definitely going to be edited more – so I guess you have
to take that into consideration.

Jaime Foxx was good, but I wasn’t in awe of his acting abilities.
In fact, I wasn’t excited about his performance in Ray. As for Eddie
Murphy, he really surprised me….it’s a far cry from Pluto Nash and

I could go on and on, but overall I liked the film. It’s not one of
the best musical films I’ve seen but it ranks in the “above average”
category. I am a Bill Condon fan (i.e. Gods and Monsters) so with him
attached to this, I knew it wouldn’t be a hot mess.

Thanks, Dino. For more from the mind of Dino-Ray, visit his Web site here.

Dreaming of ‘Dreamgirls’

Want a goosebump experience? Check out the official site for Dreamgirls, the upcoming movie version the kick-a** 1980 Broadway musical.

I got all revved up about this when I first saw the teaser trailer last Christmas, but now we’ve got an official site and everything with a tantalizing documentary, juicy film clips and snippets of musical numbers.

iTunes is offering a single, the disco-licious “One Night Only,” by “The Dreams,” and that is one tasty morsel.

Please, oh, please let this be the musical that makes us forget recent movie musicals of Rent, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers. (A side note: I happen to be of the opinion that this summer’s completely charming and underrated A Prairie Home Companion is actually a very gentle musical about death, but I’m probably in the minority there).

Anyway, with Bill Condon, screenwriter of Chicago and writer/director on Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, there’s reason to be hopeful.

And what about this cast? Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose (an American Conservatory Theater MFA graduate). More reason to think this won’t be a disaster.

Makes me a little nervous that there are rumored to be four new songs (including one co-written by Miss Beyonce), but we’ll see about that. “I Have Confidence” was added to the movie of The Sound of Music, and now I can’t imagine the score without it.

Now, don’t even get me started on the upcoming movie of Hairspray