Dreamgirls at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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And I’m telling you— you ARE going to Toby’s Dinner Theatre this autumn to see Dreamgirls. It’s more than just a dream— it’s a fantasy come true with sparkle, energy, enthusiasm, and raw talent that will blow you away. Dreamgirls, appearing live on the Toby’s stage as the fall musical of the 2017 season, is filled with the heart and soul of the 60’s and 70’s, giving you all the rhythm and blues you can handle. Directed by Kevin McAllister with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and Choreography by Shalyce Hemby, you’ll thank your lucky stars it’s playing for more than just one night only! But hurry to book your tickets, this is a limited engagement and seats are moving faster than a tricked-out Cadillac car!

Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls
Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls Jeri Tidwell Photography

For as enthusiastic and energetic as the performers are, the production moves almost too quickly through the first act, especially in the opening sequence. Director Kevin McAllister pushes the performers at such a break-neck pace through the entire opening scene at The Apollo Theatre, that lines get jumbled and lost, and you hardly get to notice all of the fine nuances that are carved into each performer’s character, along with all the lovely costumes. McAllister’s pacing does level out as the show progresses, particularly once the intermission falls and the overall tension of the storyline unwinds somewhat, things settle into a more palatable flow. McAllister’s sense of the in-the-round space is also slightly off-kilter as well, but like his pacing, corrects itself as the show progresses. The opening half of the show appears to be blocked in heavy favor of these with their backs to the theatre’s main entrance. Whether this is an intentional attempt to create the traditional proscenium that might be used at The Apollo Theatre, is unclear, but as mentioned, the even spacing and full use of all the sides of the in-the-round space does balance out and become clearer as the show moves forward.

McAllister does an exceptional job of keeping the energy pumping all through the production, even if at times there is a bit too much shouting and lines get blurred because of it. You can feel the energy radiating off the cast in waves, and it feeds the enthusiasm and interest of the audience, drawing us into the microcosms of all the principal players. This energy is well-reflected in Choreographer Shalyce Hemby’s dance work, though she follows the same path as McAllister in her initial proscenium style dancing. There is a curious shift in the cleanliness of the choreography as well, the opening numbers performed by The Stepp Sisters (Samantha McEwen Deininger, Denae’ Fielder, Ashley K. Nicholas, Taylor Washington) and The Tru-Tones (David Singleton, Bryan Archibald, Hasani Allen, Gregory Banks, Solomon Parker III) feel somewhat under-coordinated. This plays intentionally to the notion that these groups are appearing at amateur night at The Apollo; Hemby later demonstrates how tight and precise her routines can be— particularly during “Party-Party” and the routines that The Dreams perform once they’ve hired a ‘professional choreographer.’ Hemby’s style is suited for the music and she keeps McAllister’s infectious enthusiasm rolling hard through everyone that moves, which in this show is everyone, so that the energy never wavers, even when the show slows down.

Stealing the spotlight for most ingenious understanding of how to accentuate the show, Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin— working with Projections Designer Kate Wackerle— puts on a show all her own with the way she illuminates critical scenes and crucial moments throughout the production. But a word on Wackerle’s projections must come first. In what can be described as one of the most ambitious uses of projected technology in Toby’s history, Wackerle exercises her creativity and historical knowledge to do incredible things that underscore the spectacle of the show. When ‘The Dreamettes’ make their road-trip tour with Jimmy Thunder Early down the eastern seaboard, Wackerle uses moving footage of cars racing through city streets with subtitles of each major city as it’s announced to wow the audience, and this simple yet well-thought-out projection novelty is dazzling. Wackerle puts these finely honed projection-design skills to use continually throughout the production, thoroughly enhancing the theatrical experience, as they are projected on all sides (though the projectors on the walls of the main entrance and directly opposite the main entrance may need new bulbs as they are a fair bit dimmer than those more brightly vivacious bulbs on the side walls.)  

The Company of Dreamgirls at Toby's Dinerr Theatre
The Company of Dreamgirls at Toby’s Dinerr Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography

Joslin has worked light cubes into David Hopkins’ minimalist set, and her use of these glowing colored cubes is sublime. Highlighted by overhead LED strips, that match the colors of the cubes when they flash to life, there’s an entire transfixing show of light and illumination happening in concurrence with the performance, enhancing it rather than detracting from it. Joslin understands how to work her lighting cues and color usage with Costume Designer Lawrence B. Munsey’s affinity for sequins, sparkle, glitter, and lamè. Her use of cooler tones, like those subdued blues and purples, match the moodier moments to perfection, and the authenticity of the blindingly bright flashbulbs in the camera is spot on, leaving the audience seeing spots every time they go off. Joslin has outdone herself with the way she enhances and elevates the mood, primarily focusing on the way the light-cubes, which are framed around the entrance overhangs, pop into existence, sometimes directly in rhythm with the song that’s happening as they do.

Munsey has amassed a myriad of dazzling new costumes for the ensemble, the sheer number alone is breathtaking, not to mention most of them are quite stunning to look at— if not for their design, which is largely fluted mermaid when it comes to the dresses, but for the amount of sparkly surface material used in their creation. Munsey keeps the men looking sharp, especially Jimmy Thunder Early, and gives each ensemble member a series of unique looks that allows them to exist as more than just a part of the chorus. At this particular performance, however, a few wardrobe malfunctions came into play, revealing the actors’ quick-change/dual and tri-layered costuming endeavors, which was a bit disappointing once the reveal was made.

(L to R) Sequina DuBose as Deena, Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White, Denae' Fielder as Michelle, and Ashley Johnson as Lorell
(L to R) Sequina DuBose as Deena, Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White, Denae’ Fielder as Michelle, and Ashley Johnson as Lorell Jeri Tidwell Photography

Munsey, whose costumes were as vivacious as the energy McAllister has charged into the performers, ultimately let the lead character of Effie down in places with certain wardrobe selections, which was only noticeable because the ensemble and other principal costumes were so sharp and breathtaking. The dress Effie wears for “One Night Only” was oddly colored, somewhat unflattering to the actress, and had a very busy pattern, detracting from this soul-searing moment where the actress was belting and pouring her heart out. More often than not this was the case with Effie’s overall wardrobe, though Munsey must be praised for his flawless costume flip featured during “I Am Changing.” The initial wardrobe piece here is intentionally vibrant and busily patterned, and then instant flip into the stellar, and perfectly fitted, form-flattering evening gown is remarkable.

Dreamgirls is loaded with complex blends, sounds which Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings really draws out of this company with his seasoned flare. There are group harmonies that sound divine, particularly when groups like Les Styles (Samantha McEwen Deininger, Candace Foreman, Ashley K. Nicholas, Taylor Washington) are doing backup during numbers like “I Miss You, Old Friend.” Or when The Tuxedos (Bryan Archibald, Hasani Allen, Gregory Banks, Sylvern Groomes Jr., David Singleton) stacked up on the staircase— which may be one of the most impressively blocked usages of the stage all night— do a little pre tune to “Ain’t No Party.” Rawlings keeps the sound balanced, which helps overcome some of the issues of over-shouting during moments of frenetic chaos, which seem to dominate the opening few scenes.

Talent flows with unlimited bounty into this production, through every energetically charged ensemble member right up to Effie White herself; there are no weak players in this production of Dreamgirls. Even the tiniest nod of attitude, like Shannan Johnson and Amanda Corbett as Charlene and Joanne walking out on Jimmy Early in the very beginning of the show, or Sylvern Groomes Jr. and Hasani Allen facing off respectively as Mr. Morgan and the Security Guard right before and after the big confrontation with Effie and Curtis; everyone finds their niche and thrives in it, making their parts, felt, noticed, and a functioning cog in this machine called Dreamgirls.

DeCarlo Raspberry (left) as Curtis Taylor Jr. and Crystal Freeman (right) as Effie Melody White
DeCarlo Raspberry (left) as Curtis Taylor Jr. and Crystal Freeman (right) as Effie Melody White Jeri Tidwell Photography

With a big attitude and a bigger voice to back it up, Anwar Thomas tackles the easily dismissive role of Marty, making it noteworthy in this production. Thomas’ robust voice fills out the harmonies in both portions of the initial “Cadillac Car” number. He goes head to head with the slippery snake, Curtis (DeCarlo Raspberry) and holds his own in face-offs with this venomous viper of a character. Raspberry is the treacherous serpent we all love to hate. Unctuous and slimy with a rogue appeal to his character, he drives the quartet blend of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” with himself, Jimmy Early, C.C., and Wayne (Gregory Banks), using deeply soulful sound that makes the slow, smoldering intro to this number one of the most harrowing yet sublime harmonious moments of the show. With a gifted vocal sound, Raspberry even tries to lay on the sugar during his ballad, “You Are My Dream”, but manages to maintain that slick essence of sleaze about his person, grasping control of every situation with his clutching claws and ferocious personality.

The Dreams, once they’ve blossomed out of being the bubbly and perky Dreamettes, are a sound of vocal harmony to die for. Michelle (Denae’ Fielder), last to the group but a Dream just the same, has a sweet voice, but don’t mistake her sugary sound for a lack of power and punch. During “It’s All Over”, Fielder holds her own and brass-blasts Effie out of the water just as well as anyone else in the number, showing her vocal prowess as hard and furious as if she’d been a part of the dysfunctional group dynamic all along.

Making his professional theatre debut, though you’d never know it was a debut from the stellar performance he gives, Da’Von Moody takes up the role of C.C. White, giving it a youthfully exuberant freshness, that really emphasizes the fact that he’s Effie’s younger brother. Moody is convivial, congenial, and conscious of how his character interacts and exists with the others on stage around him. With reactive facial expressions, especially during the moment that immediately follows the Pat-Boone style “Cadillac Car” (featuring Justin Calhoun in the cameo role of Dave), but before the thrilling darkness of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”, you get a clear sense of how emotionally invested Moody is in the character’s overall growth and existence. With a sublime tenor sound, he melts into “Family”, singing with sincerity to Effie here. “I Miss You, Old Friend” is another divine moment featuring Moody’s dulcet voice that will not soon be forgotten because of both tonal clarity and emotional fortitude.

Sequina DuBose (left) as Deena and DeCarlo Raspberry (right) as Curtis Taylor Jr.
Sequina DuBose (left) as Deena and DeCarlo Raspberry (right) as Curtis Taylor Jr. Jeri Tidwell Photography

Lorrell (Ashley Johnson) and Deena (Sequina DuBose) round out The Dreams and you couldn’t ask for more dynamic and talented performers in their roles. Johnson exudes passion like she’s a natural spring, bubbling up with the stuff from the moment Lorell runs into The Apollo. DuBose possesses charisma that eases the transition of young back-up singer to full-throttle diva with style. The pair have exquisite voices that are as powerful as they are beautiful, blasting their way through the really furious moments, during “It’s All Over” and yet carrying the lighter moments of the show— like “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart”, wherein Johnson and DuBose not only sing their hearts out but they never stop their furious feet and whole bodies while moving all through the number.

Bryan Jeffrey (left) as James 'Thunder' Early and Ashley Johnson (right) as Lorell
Bryan Jeffrey (left) as James ‘Thunder’ Early and Ashley Johnson (right) as Lorell Jeri Tidwell Photography

Johnson, who matures with the character, transforming Lorell from a naïve little girl to a tired woman who is over playing games with the man she loves, is outstanding in the role. Full of vigor, vim, and vivacious liveliness, there isn’t a scene that doesn’t sparkle and pop when she steps in it. With a voice that would easily bring a man to his knees, she belts out all of her character’s grown-up frustrations during “Ain’t No Party” while holding her own against Jimmy Early’s nonsense. This is a sharp contrast to the way she dotes, swoons, and fawns all over the larger-than-life celebrity earlier in the production. DuBose, as the infamous Deena Jones, finds a purity of heart and deep remorse later in the production, really singling out these feelings in her character when she sings both her half of “You Are My Dream”, breaking away from Curtis, and her delicate words with Effie during “Chicago.”

Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls
Crystal Freeman as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls Jeri Tidwell Photography

Effie Melody White (Crystal Freeman) is the dream, girl. There is no doubt about Foreman’s ability to translate the struggles of this character vocally, physically, emotionally, and she does so with earnest heart, pure soul, and a voice that will blast the walls down. Her tantrum-fit finale during “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going” is harrowing, brutal, and evocative. With a moving sound that is constantly punching at the top of its belting and sustaining range, it’s emotionally exhausting just to listen to the glorious sound she’s pouring into these numbers. “I am Changing” is the most heart-stopping and breathtaking number in the production, fully encapsulating Freeman’s journey with the character of Effie White. Evocative, visceral, powerful, there simply aren’t enough words to do justice to the performance that Freeman gives in this role, truly awakening, enlivening, and delivering Effie White the audience as the titular star of the show.

Bryan Jeffrey as James 'Thunder' Early in Dreamgirls
Bryan Jeffrey as James ‘Thunder’ Early in Dreamgirls Jeri Tidwell Photography

Now the show may be called Dreamgirls, but there is a boy running away with his own dream, stealing the show, shaking the house down, and making his cameo-styled caricature role pop so hard that he almost pops the roof straight off the building. James Thunder Early (Bryan Jeffrey) is bringing the thunder of his namesake when it comes to owning this role, and really gets the audience into the groove of his funky soul. Unafraid to let loose, particularly during “Rap: Jimmy Got Soul”, Jeffrey goes to town with the character and doesn’t hold back. With vocals that are the epitome of Prince incarnate, cracking in exactly the right place— to the point of thinking that he’s channeling the late great artist directly into his portrayal— Jeffrey runs away with his solo leads during “Fake Your Way to the Top” and “Movin’ Out/Recording Studio.” Hyper animated in both facial expression and overall body movement, there isn’t a moment when Jeffrey is on stage where your eyes won’t be glued to him and all of his wild antics.

It’s a dream come true to see these Dreamgirls, especially the finale, which features all four Dreams singing together one last time, and it’s one you won’t want to miss. But it’s moving quickly, so get your tickets now before it becomes just a dream that you’ve missed out on seeing!

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission

Dreamgirls plays through November 12, 2017 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (410) 730-8311 or purchase them online.

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