Can a production be greater than the sum of its parts? That's the question that my fellow blogger Isaac Butler of Parabasis asks regarding the touring production of Dreamgirls, which is currently playing at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Isaac also helps administer the Critic-O-Meter blog, which summarizes the critical response to major shows on Broadway and off, and creates a summary score to reflect the general tenor of the reviews. In his compilation of the Dreamgirls reviews, Isaac marvels at how the critics can damn the production with faint praise, then turn around and recommend the show enthusiastically. He further speculates on his blog that this might stem from people's fondness for the show itself, the fact that the show is playing a fabled location, or that critics are holding the production to a lower standard because it's a touring production.
Well, I saw Dreamgirls at the Apollo Theater this past Saturday night, and I had the same reaction as many critics did. Yes, there were many individual aspects of the production that simply didn't work, but somehow overall it wound up being a blast to watch. Was my reaction based on my fondness for the show itself? I'm sure that was a factor. Was there something special about seeing the show at the Apollo, where the story of the show begins and ends? Unquestionably.
As to whether the show received a critical bye because it's a touring production, well, I can't speak for other critics, but I held Dreamgirls to the same standard I reserve for any professional show: Did I enjoy myself? Was I both moved and entertained? And did the production exhibit the professionalism I've come to expect from shows on the main stem? For me, the answers here were "yes," "yes," and "for the most part."
The greatest strengths of Dreamgirls as a show are its strong story, sympathetic characters, and great songs. Overall, it's a well constructed show, with numerous deftly crafted sequences, and a number of ingenious touches. One great example is the final tag to Act 1. Effie White has just performed this wrenching, showstopping solo, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," but Michael Bennett, the original director/choreographer, didn't let the act end there. He brought in the performing Dreams to steal the moment from Effie, to emphasize the extent of her loss. On top of her pain, she's already been dismissed and forgotten. It's a masterful touch.
And then there's "Family," which is such a heartwarming sequence, at least in context, in which Effie's friends reassure her that she's as much a part of this group as anybody else, as it were. But shortly thereafter, these exact same people who reassured her that she was indeed family are summarily kicking her out of the group in the show's most masterful extended sequence, "It's All Over." The show makes the transition believable by showing the tension build among the group to the point where we can empathize with all of the various parties, even as we feel for Effie's loss.
So, yeah, the show is very strong. As for this particular production, it was reassuring to see director/choreographer Robert Longbottom in a relative return to form after committing the atrocity that is the current Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie (read my review). After sitting through that abomination, I was ready to write Longbottom off, but based on Dreamgirls I'm willing to give him another chance, albeit provisional. His staging of "Steppin' to the Bad Side" was particularly good, incorporating both an appropriate sense of menace and a cute nod to Busby Berklee. On the other hand, his staging for "Move" and "One Night Only" was meh and double-meh, respectively.
When I first heard that this production would be adding the number "Listen" from the movie, I thought it was a bit on the gimmicky side. But you know what? The song really works in the context of the show. It comes when Deena and Effie meet for the first time in years. In the course of the number, Deena apologizes for the way she treated Effie, and Effie exhorts Deena to leave her louse of a husband. The vocals got a bit screechy for my taste, as did much of the singing in the second act, but the dramatic effect of the song was stunning.
The current cast features a number of very strong performers, particularly Chester Gregory as James "Thunder" Early. Gregory was simply terrific, with a great stage presence and a dynamite James Brown falsetto, but he also manages to make Jimmy very sympathetic. It looks as though Gregory really dodged a bullet when he was let go from Shrek and replaced by the Daniel Breaker as Donkey, because Jimmy Early is a much better showcase for his talents.
Toward the beginning of the show, Moya Angela made for a really kick-ass Effie White, but for me she got a bit one-note bitter in the second act. But the only really sour note among the cast was Chaz Lemar Shepherd, who was far too slimy as Curtis. There was no charm to his performance, which made it hard to see why all of these people would place so much faith in him, and find him so attractive. Plus, his wig was a skanky, ratty mess. In fact, all of the male wigs were rather unattractive. I'm sure they were period-appropriate, but sometimes aesthetics needs to trump fidelity.
So, yeah, I had a lot of minor issues with various aspects of the production, but on the whole I enjoyed myself immensely. The Dreamgirls tour will be passing through quite a few major cities over the next 8 months, including Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Sure, it won't be the same as seeing it at the Apollo, but there's a lot more to this production than mere geographic synergy. A lot more.