They’re your Dreamgirls, they’ll make you happy! You just have to get a ticket to see them at the Tantallon Community Players and you better move hot quick because tickets are moving hotter than a disco inferno! Dreamgirls, produced by Larry Carbaugh and Directed by Christopher Gerkin, will welcome you back to an era of bygone music and the struggle of popular music as African American artists transitioned out of soul, through R&B and into the pop charts. A stellar narrative that draws the focus to the beautifully crafted storylines from Book and Lyricist Tom Eyen, the TCP production of Dreamgirls is a must-see to kick off the summer season.
Simplicity is key when playing in a space that doesn’t lend itself to a potentially complex stage musical. While the performance stage at Harmony Hall Regional Center is glorious it isn’t the most ideal for a stage musical. Director Christopher Gerkin and Set Designer Harry Cash bring forth a minimalistically tasteful set that serves as a vehicle for the show’s main focus: the narrative. Gerkin recognizes the show for what it is— an American opera— and drives the production forward accordingly. That is not to say that both Cash and Lighting Designer Sheryl Fry do not add a sprinkling of razzle-dazzle and musical theatre glitz to the production here and there. Rail-runner lights on the steps in addition to records glued to the front of the stairs and tight focal spotlights when needed give the perfect hint of flare without overwhelming the music and the overall storytelling component of the production.
Looking for a place to pay tribute to the musical theatricality of the show’s nature, Gerkin lets that rest squarely on the shoulders of Costume Designers Holli Goral and Elaine Sullivan. With Wigs and Makeup Designed by Shemika Berry, the couture approach to the show is nearly flawless. Goral and Sullivan fabulously outfit the voluptuous dreams in glitter, glamour, occasionally even in gold, but there are one or two questionable selections that certainly catch the eye, even if it is in a most curious fashion. The striking red dresses and gold drip-melting gowns are glorious and do wonders to highlight the sparkly personality of The Dreams; these and several other dresses like it deserve great nods of praise to Goral and Sullivan’s general direction. The hybrid cupcake-mermaid monstrosities alongside the cream chiffon muumuus are unforgettable and are certainly a design choice, perhaps one intended to showcase the full arrange of styles bands and music groups pass through before they find the signature look that works for them. On the whole, Goral and Sullivan, with era-appropriate assistance from Berry, craft a brilliant aesthetic in the wardrobe department.
Gerkin hones in on the details of the story without compromising the showmanship of the musical theatre elements of the show. When things turn ugly for Effie at the end of the first act they do so viciously and in a hurry, a nod to the continual dysfunction of show business. Guiding the characters to more depth-driven representations of their emotions, rather than playing up the easily accessible caricatures penned into the book, Gerkin delivers a strikingly earnest production that allows these performers to not only showcase their vocal abilities but their acting talents as well.
Musical Director LeVar Betts astounds the house with his ability to balance a live, unmasked 13-person orchestra just at the back of the stage. Despite some minor falters and hiccups, which are to be expected during the first live run of a performance, Betts gives an impressive performance with his ability to keep the band from overplaying some of the softer and subtler moments featured in the score. Keeping the rhythm and driving the tempo where appropriate, Betts infuses a lively energy into the production as a whole even during the slower and more sentimental musical numbers.
Choreographer Debbie Clark hits the sweet spot of the show with the routine featured at the top of the second act during “Dreamgirls (Reprise).” Easily existing as the tightest and most synchronized dance routine in the show, Clark’s work in this number is praiseworthy. Her smaller routines, featuring the various competitive groups like The Stepp Sisters (Christine O. Wells, Alani D’Lawren, Maecy Richardson, and Kandace Foreman) or The Tuxedos (Jory Holmes, Angelo Cline, Matthew Williams, Jesse Cao, and Brenan Mack), are where the precision craftsmanship of late 1960’s and early 1970’s dance work comes into visible play. There are some clunky moments early in the first act with full ensemble choreography, but this tightens dramatically in the second act and over the run of the show is likely to become unnoticeable.
You can’t kill a man with soul and Jimmy “Thunder” Early (C.J. Faulk) has got soul with a capital S! Faulk will straight up funk you up with his wild fancy-footed performance in the role of the zesty thunder cat and he’s got a voice to back it up too! Blasting a powerful sustain for his note of exodus late in the second act Faulk brings the house down with his intense sound. In addition to holding his own with the big boys of the show vocally, Faulk has some madcap moves that bust out of his body and give the character a thunderous new vibrancy when it comes to dancing.
While Marty (Kevin Sockwell) may not be able to kill a man with soul, he’s touting enough of his own particularly panache to go toe to toe with Faulk throughout the performance. While Sockwell doesn’t have any solos of his own, his voice is a spectacular blend for numbers like “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and “Cadillac Car.” His spastic nature and vivid facial expressions give the gritty character of Marty just the right edge both when mouthing off at Curtis and when blasting Jimmy out of the water.
While she may not get many moments in the spotlight, Christine O. Wells as Michelle Morris— the fourth Dream— is vocally passionate and holds her own in the trio numbers like “I Am Changing (Vogue Photo Call) particularly when she has to voice out her opinions of being used to Deena Jones in the spotlight. Another noteworthy female cameo performance comes from Alani D’Lawren, who is only credited in the ensemble and as Mrs. Morgan, Effie’s lawyer. D’Lawren has a mean deep vocal range that really pops in certain ensemble numbers and her stage presence is slick like a glinting knife in the night, you definitely can’t miss her in various choreographed routines throughout the show.
As the title implies, Dreamgirls is heavy on the leading female roles. All too often the characters of C.C. (Theodore Sapp) and Curtis (Jason Ellis) are readily brushed aside in favor of the powerhouse vocalists that fill the roles of Deena, Lorell, and Effie. But this production highlights both Sapp and Ellis’ vocal strengths and tenacities. Being in equal possession of powerful voices, particularly once they go to war with one another, both Sapp and Ellis add intense vocal flavoring to the performance. Ellis is a silvery tongued serpent from the moment his character slinks onto the scene and numbers like “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” support that personification. Sapp does imbue the character with a tenderness for “You Are My Dream,” a duet sung at Deena, though it may be too little too late for his character.
Sapp, as the somewhat more stimulatingly sentimental character of C. C., delivers astonishing vocal clarity, particularly during one liners featured during “It’s All Over.” Bringing a mournful and regretting soul to the table for “I Miss You, Old Friend,” it’s easy to hear his character’s transition and feel the emotional integrity behind this number. Overall, Sapp is an impressive performer that brings the perfect balance between the talented men and women of the principal roles in this show.
Squeaky, bubbly, but not to be written off, Lorell (Sheron LaSha) stands on her own two feet as one third of the dramatic dream team. Showcasing two very dynamic sides of the character, LaSha handles the juxtaposition of sweet and enthusiastically in-love with Jimmy against furiously over him with rigorous aplomb by the time “Ain’t No Party” rolls around in the middle of the second act. A true belttress, just like Effie, LaSha has vocal power and tenacity to match when taking to the character of Lorell.
Deena Jones (Richelle “Rikkie” Lacewell) serves up some serious divatude throughout the performance particularly once stardom lays its claim to her name in the second act. Lacewell brings the character through a sharp and sudden transition, going from being a delicate drop of backup support to Effie and the dreams to a raging diva in the limelight in the blink of an eye. Vocally sound and not without her own brand of sassafras behind numbers like “I Am Changing (Vogue Photo Call)” and “One Night Only— Disco.” Lacewell is a standout leader and puts her mark on the show with a sensational stomp of attitude, fully supported by her sturdy lower-range vocals.
A vocal contender with Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson, Corisa Myers does not rely on the melodramatic divatude often attributed to the character of Effie to find success in the role. Humanizing her more than seems possible, Myers plays the character in earnest with a straight forward approach, which makes her plight and struggle through the end of the first act and into the second that much more harrowing to watch. Driven by her secretive shame, a plot spoiler learned later in the second act, “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going” is a hands down sensational show-stopping moment that is filled not only with Myers’ exceptionally powerful belted sound so that the audience can hear her anguish but is emoted so purely and from such a deep place in her heart that it becomes a palpable feeling for the audience as well. Vibrant and lucid of heart, mind, and voice, Myers is phenomenal in the role of Effie and should not be missed delivering this performance of a lifetime.
Vocally explosive, particularly when harmonies collide, this production should absolutely be on the weekend do-list if it isn’t already. Dreamgirls will have all your musical theatre dreams coming true this summer at Tantallon Community Players.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
Dreamgirls plays through June 12, 2016 at Tantallon Community Players in residence at the Harmony Hall Regional Center at 10701 Livingston Road in Fort Washington, MD. For tickets please call (301) 203-6070 or purchase them online.