"Amber Riley is the undoubted star of this dazzling show"Evening Standard
"A dream of a show casts its thrilling spell over the West End"The Stage
"Fantastic ride on the showbiz rollercoaster"The Guardian
"A show with tremendous gusto of soul and gaiety of spirit"The Telegraph
A 35-year wait ends in a triumphant London comeback at the Savoy Theatre
DREAMGIRLS is the award-winning show that follows the tumultuous journey of a young female singing group called The Dreams as they chase fame in the 1960s.
It features classic songs such as And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, I Am Changing, One Night Only and Listen.
As the original trio of singers – Effie, Deena and Lorrell – begin to find stardom, their loyalties are stretched when they compete over status in the band and their men. They soon learn the hard lesson that show business is as tough as it is fabulous, and Effie, the original lead singer, finds herself upstaged by the less talented but more popular Leena. Effie is eventually replaced and while Deena enjoys her success, the burden of fame and stardom weighs heavily on her.
As the band begins to disintegrate – will their dreams survive?
Dreamgirls is dazzling — a lavish and richly emotional musical that depicts fantasies of freedom and the price of success. Remarkably, it’s taken 35 years for it to reach these shores. The show’s undoubted star is Amber Riley, once of TV’s Glee, whose voice is huge and ardent yet also capable of delicate understatement. Her most gasp-inducing moments come during the anthem ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, but it’s a performance that’s at all times exhilarating. It’s the Sixties and the Dreamettes, a young trio from Chicago led by Riley's jaunty Effie, enter a New York talent contest. They’re spotted by devious car salesman Curtis, who becomes their agent and turns them into backing singers for Jimmy Early, a hyperactive blowhard whose stage antics make James Brown look restrained. Adam J Bernard is an athletic and vocally attractive Early, while Joe Aaron Reid’s Curtis radiates menace and ugly ambition. There’s charming, sensitive work from Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack as Effie’s fellow Dreamettes — elegant Deena and wholesome truth-teller Lorrell — and Tyrone Huntley, recently winner of this paper’s Emerging Talent award as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, brings a quiet magnetism to Effie’s songwriting brother CC. Gradually the Dreamettes earn stardom, but at the cost of surrendering their souls. Curtis manipulates them crudely, picking TV-friendly Deena to front a more poppy version of the group. As tensions multiply, Henry Krieger’s score prefers direct emotiveness to subtle sophistication and some of Tom Eyen’s lyrics feel formulaic. Yet the best numbers have a blazing energy that’s gloriously conveyed by Nick Finlow’s large band in the pit. The original Eighties production by Michael Bennett was notable for its giant mobile towers of lights, which neatly established the different locations. They’re preserved by current director Casey Nicholaw, whose fluent interpretation boasts gorgeous costumes and choreography tighter than a lobster’s shell. But it’s the dynamic performances that propel this passionate musical, and Amber Riley’s is as thrilling as any I can recall.
London has had to wait 35 years for the arrival of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls – but it has been worth the wait. While Michael Bennett's original 1981 staging remains indelible – in my memory, one of the greatest Broadway productions I've ever seen – another Broadway hoofer turned director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw both respects and amplifies some of its thrilling innovations. As in Bennett's original production, a series of automated lighting towers (there are six now, against the original five) prowl the stage, restlessly propelling the show from scene to scene. The story follows the rise of a three person R’n’B girl group. They begin as reluctant back-up singers to James 'Thunder' Early before becoming stars in their own right. Then the original lead singer Effie White, who is dating the group's ruthless manager Curtis Taylor Jr, has her role usurped both onstage and in his bed by the more svelte Deena Jones, and a classic backstage struggle emerges. The plot of Tom Eyen's book may feel a little blunt and obvious, but the irresistible joy of Dreamgirls lies in a score by Henry Krieger that is a magnificent parade of original hits. The irony is that some of these songs have become so well known – particularly the epic Act I curtain song And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going and the thrilling One Night Only – that it feels a bit like a jukebox musical, despite being entirely original. Krieger has channelled this into a propulsive symphony of melodies that are stunningly played by a pit band under the baton of Nick Finlow. But Nicholaw has also staged it with an expansive economy through Tim Hatley's designs. It is simultaneously epic yet detailed: there are splashes of outrageous colour, like a shimmering crystal curtain or a glittering backdrop that Hugh Vanstone's lighting re-colours repeatedly. The vocal performances of the large company are amazing. Glee’s Amber Riley is an absolute dazzler as Effie. She has an assured stage presence that is both formidable and wrenching as she tears into her big songs and wins several mid-performance ovations and even standing ovations. Perhaps audiences have been over-conditioned by The X Factor to respond in this way, but she earns the approval. Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack hold their own as fellow Dreams Deena and Lorrell. Joe Aaron Reid brings a sense of studied detachment and ambition to Curtis, while Tyrone Huntley as Effie's songwriter brother CC White also stands out vocally. Along with Motown playing at the Shaftesbury, the show sees the number of black performers in the West End growing – and it is pleasing to note a more diverse audience to the usual West End crowd supporting it as a result.
From the first swish of a lime-green, sequinned fishtail skirt to the megawatt smiles of ambitious girl group the Dreamettes and the shiny suits of their manager, a former Cadillac salesman, Dreamgirls is a musical full of sparkle. It’s less about the grit and sweat of the struggle to the top, more a fantastically entertaining ride on the showbiz rollercoaster, accompanied by some brilliantly belting voices. Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, The Book of Mormon) directs the UK premiere, 35 years after the original Broadway show by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, which was adapted for a 2006 film starring Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles. The story follows a wide-eyed trio hoping to harmonise their way to stardom. Their talented lead singer, Effie (Glee’s Amber Riley), is sidelined when pretty, pop-friendly Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) is chosen to front the group. It’s clearly inspired by the real story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Its weakness, sadly, is that the songs are nowhere near as good as the Supremes’ hits. But what it does have is tremendous energy and pace, crammed with snappy numbers and tight, slick 60s routines. This is a tale of transformation: from naive hopefuls into jaded superstars, from raw R&B into the disco era, from success to failure, and then back again. Tim Hatley’s sets are constantly on the move, creating a succession of stages, dressing rooms and recording studios. Gregg Barnes’s costumes, dipped in an acid palette and a truckload of sequins, track the movement of time, gown by gown (with some awesome quick changes). And respect to Josh Marquette’s hair design – you can see the wigs getting more expensive with every move up the charts. Riley is a real star in her first West End role, the voice huge and effortless, her no-nonsense Effie a woman who knows her worth but is all too easily made vulnerable by love. Ibinabo Jack is baby of the group Lorrell, trying on sassy confidence but desperately insecure underneath as she longs for commitment from swivel-hipped sex machine Jimmy (Adam J Bernard, showing off fantastic voice and comic chops). Tyrone Huntley, a show-stealer earlier this year as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, has a sweeter part here as songwriter CC, the depth and honesty of his voice turning the potentially saccharine Family into one of the show’s more touching moments. Eyen’s book is more functional than fizzing, and there are certainly more subtle layers to be revealed in some of the relationships, especially that of Curtis (Joe Aaron Reid) and Deena, the husband/manager who sees his wife/star as a possession. The strongest numbers are the big ballads made famous by the 2006 film. Listen, written especially for the film, here provides a much-needed emotional payoff at the show’s climax. On a stage full of great singers, gutsy Riley is a notch above them all, underplaying her melismatic skill, her voice switching from a dagger to a whisper. The first act closes with the barnstorming And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going (a song that in the wrong hands could easily be And I Am Yelling...) and Riley’s Effie is defiant even as she’s crumbling. Her massive voice rips through the auditorium, the killer line: “You’re gonna love me” addressed first to the man breaking her heart, then direct to the audience. “You’re gonna love me,” she growls again, and it’s not an appeal, it’s an order. And we do.
The next time someone tries to tell you – as Andrew Lloyd Webber, fronting the launch of a new report about diversity and training, did last week – that our theatre is “hideously white”, point them in the direction of the West End. British soul diva Beverley Knight is finishing her stint in The Bodyguard and, as of this month, there are three major musicals that are dominated by top-of-the-range black talent, much of it British. There’s the (surprisingly) thrilling Michael Jackson tribute Thriller Live, the fabulous (no, really) mega-compilation show Motown. And now at the palatial Savoy arrives Dreamgirls, director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s Tony Award-winning hit from 1981 finally getting its UK premiere, about the rise of an American R&B “girl” group with distinct shades of the Supremes. True, although the ensemble is packed with home-grown performers, the show’s leading light is the American actress Amber Riley who played the sassy, vocally gifted Mercedes on the long-running, now ended high-school TV drama Glee. She stars as Effie White, the lead singer of a fame-hungry trio from Chicago who finds herself edged out by their smooth-talking manager Curtis (and the guy she loves) just as the group – the Dreamettes – are hitting the big-time. Her perceived deficiency? Being plus-size in a looks-obsessed industry. (In the high-grossing 2006 film, Deena, who supplants her and becomes attached to Curtis, was played by Beyoncé, here it’s another US actress Liisi LaFontaine – terrific too). The fairy-tale moral of the story (this very different from the sad real-life case of Florence Ballard, who was ejected from the Supremes and went into a fatal decline) is that being your own person is the key to the right sort of success. Effie lives the dream her own way, re-unites with the group on her own terms. Without question, Riley is the biggest reason to buy a ticket: she makes even the more ordinary numbers (music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Tom Eyen) sound like show-stoppers and when she reaches the first half’s absolute belter, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, packed with hurt, defiance and soulful passion, she has the audience rising to applaud her. What a voice! This is not a show that majors in narrative sophistication or even significant dialogue (some conversational exchanges are sung) but her comically expressive, hands-on-hips “attitude” and wounded cry of “What about me?” lend solidity to the fluff. Broadway director Casey Nicholaw’s slick production is so tinselly, it almost looks custom-built for Christmas. It glitters and twinkles like an Aladdin’s cave, with beaded curtains, backdrops as sparkly as quartz and more deluxe costume-changes than there are days in December (some executed at baffling speed). The athleticism on display, in synchronised dance moves that conjure some of the silliness as well as the sexiness of the Sixties and Seventies, is as joyous as it is unflagging. No one seems to break into a sweat. Adam J Bernard – a Brit – as the disreputable womanising Jimmy Early, a pelvic-thrusting charmer in the James Brown mould, sends his legs into entertainingly electrified spasms and somehow manages to hold a note and attempt the splits at the same time. What does this show fundamentally offer? Tremendous gusto of soul and gaiety of spirit. Given the sort of jittery year we’ve had, who’d not want a piece of that?