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?
Author: Dominic Cavendish