Dreamgirls is one of those musicals for people who don’t like show tunes. It is not a jukebox show though, presenting instead a series of original numbers modelled on the passionate soul sound first popularized by Motown and Stax Records in the 60s.
Telling the story of a Supremes-style girl band, Dreamgirls debuted on stage in 1981. There have been a number of productions since but never before in the UK and most people who know it will do so from the film. While this brings inevitable comparisons for audiences seeing performers in roles previously taken by Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls best belongs on the stage. Seeing it live gives an immediacy and connection that film just cannot match. Also, for anyone worried about this cast measuring up to those more famous faces, do not be concerned. These actors are more than up to it.
The headliner in this new production is Amber Riley, best known for her work in Glee. The part needs a big and confident voice and the lady has one. When she goes for it in numbers such as “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Am Changing” she literally gives you goosebumps and at one point she even got a standing ovation before the song had finished. The audience was so ecstatic that they could not contain themselves.
While Riley is the star of the show, all of the cast should be lauded. Adam J. Bernard in particular, a mix of James Brown, Little Richard and the Tasmanian Devil all tightly wound up in one raucous package is brilliant and dominates the first half. This is not a concert though; it is a show and every element is equally spectacular, from the dancing to the sets to the costumes. Choreographer and director Casey Nicholaw and his team have taken Eyen and Krieger’s hit show, with all of its messages about racial segregation, ambition, loyalty and notions of beauty intact, and exploded it onto the London stage. If you love musicals, conventional or otherwise, you must see it.
Review by Mark Waters