Dreamgirls: Ahmanson Theatre, 3/23/10

5 04 2010

I have been assailed with the Charles McNulty quote, “It’s all about the MUSIC!” on each recent visit to the Center Theatre Group website.  In his LA Times review of Dreamgirls, McNulty lauds the performers’ “powerhouse singing” – and rightfully so.  The national tour of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s 1981 musical about a 1960s female R&B trio offers a host of great performances, but I left the theater wondering: is it really “all about” the music?

I had high expectations for Dreamgirls, especially after some rave performance reviews from my undergrad musical theater history students – but this production ultimately came up short for me.  No doubt, Dreamgirls can be a vehicle for outstanding singers.  Jennifer Holliday’s and Jennifer Hudson’s renditions of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” have become iconic.  Moya Angela delivers a staggeringly powerful Effie in the national tour, belting her way through the production with remarkable force night after night, while Chester Gregory’s James “Thunder” Early steals the show with his shocking falsetto and smooth dance moves.

But Charles McNulty may be right.  Dreamgirls is less about “music,” and more about “MUSIC!”  After all, the Dreams don’t win the audience’s hearts by tight harmonies alone. What the musical lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in volume, aggressive and impressive (and constant and exhausting) belting, dramatic swoops into notes, and – most importantly of all – spectacle!

The real star of Robert Longbottom’s production is not Eyen and Krieger’s music at all, but an awe-inspiring spectacle of changing sets, projections, lights, glittering costumes, and quick changes. Robin Wagner’s sets and Ken Billington’s accompanying lighting design seem highly influenced by the 2006 movie version of Dreamgirls, employing a rapid fluidity between sets that suggests filmic montage, not to mention massive background projections whenever the Dreams appear on TV. Videos consistently dwarf and sometimes even occlude the performers themselves. As the audience gazes at the screens behind the performers, the Dreams’ disembodied voices soar over the crowd – just like a film. William Ivey Long’s costumes sparkle in an array of period-specific silhouettes, shapes, and colors. The audience gasps every time the Dreams (again, with a filmic fluidity) seamlessly change from one costume to the next.  During “I Am Changing,” Effie’s transformation from a downtrodden, out-of-work singer to a budding solo star is more dramatically effected through costume than through performance; during a blackout with only her face illuminated by a spotlight, Effie’s garb literally goes from rags to riches in a matter of seconds.

I should make it clear that I take no issue with spectacle itself.  However, I do take issue with spectacle as a replacement for substance.  For once, I am inclined to agree with McNulty: “Spectacular effects are, by definition, thrilling to behold, yet they leave little room for subtler pleasures.” Dreamgirls left me entertained, but ultimately unsatisfied.  The individual characters, so well-sung, are washed away amidst this production’s high-gloss trappings. The story is a compelling slice of history and the singers are powerful; why not focus on and hone these inherent strengths?  This production needs to give the sensations a break: to find a pause in the constant flurry of motion and a breath amidst the belting.  I know Dreamgirls has something more to offer than a bombardment of visual splendors.

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