A celebration of the American R&B acts of the 60s and 70s, Dreamgirls is the kind of musical that doesn’t really play to the strengths of the greater pool of Australian stage performing talent. So it’s no surprise that it has taken until now for this 1981 Broadway hit to make its Australian premiere – even with the great success of the 2006 film adaptation. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, StageArt bring this production hard on the heels of their successful staging of Latin-American musical In The Heights.
Besides the potential challenge of casting the vocally demanding roles, Dreamgirls also has one of the most musically disjointed scores you’ll hear in an essentially sung-through musical, from Side Show composer Henry Krieger. This poses an additional degree of difficulty for Musical Director/Conductor Tyson Legg and his band of eight that they rise to with aplomb. Fragmented and jerky scoring aside, Legg’s band rock out the soulful Motown grooves and traditional show-tune style numbers, leaving no disappointment for an audience searching out a toe-tapping night of R&B.
While always denied by the original producers, to prevent litigation, Dreamgirls mirrors the life stories of Diana Ross and The Supremes. Tracking the career of a female vocal trio called ‘The Dreamettes’ from their first hopeful entry into the famous amateur night at Chicago’s Apollo Theater, through in-fighting, line-up changes, world-wide success and the back room machinations of record company execs and managers. Each development is illustrated with practically non-stop song creating a constantly driving pace.
Just as in The Supremes’ story, The Dreamettes start off with a full-figured lead singer – Effie White, played by Thando Sikwila – before shifting her into support so that the more traditionally beautiful girl with a ‘softer, more commercial voice’ can take centre stage. An alumni of last year’s season of The Voice, Sikwila has an undeniably incredible singing voice. Effie gets some of the biggest numbers in the story, including well-known showstopper ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, and does not disappoint with her vocal gymnastics and powerhouse belt. Sikwila is an outstanding singer with strong experience for her age, but is making her theatrical debut in this production and it shows in her acting. A unquestionably sassy and charismatic stage presence isn’t quite enough to fill out the dramatic requirements of this story.
As Deena Jones, the Diana Ross equivalent, Anna Francesca Armenia gets the balance right between characterisation and vocal performance. Appropriately demonstrating a smooth and more gentle vocal tone, Armenia gets to the heart of this conflicted character – driven and ambitious, but without true malice.
Filling out the trio, Zenya Carmellotti gives a sweet and warm performance as the youngest Dreamette Lorell. Bringing welcome comic relief and compelling truthfulness to the character along with strong harmonies, Carmellotti is very winsome in the role.
While The Dreamettes lose the talent show at the Apollo, they do gain a manager in used-car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr, who convinces R&B star Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early to take on the girls as his backing singers. As Jimmy, Gareth Jacobs offers an outstanding vocal performance and fierce presence. Across the varying styles of ‘Fake Your Way To The Top’ through ‘I Want You Baby’ and to ‘The Rap’, Jacobs is comfortable in any genre, though truly at home singing soul, making the most of every vocal opportunity and leaving the audience in the palm of his hand. His only weakness is in his camp portrayal, which doesn’t fit the ‘ladies man’ persona of Jimmy.
Winston Hillyer brings a rich deep baritone to Curtis, sounding thoroughly ominous in performing ‘Steppin’ To The Bad Side’ and appropriately devious as he manipulates the girls for his own means. Hillyer does struggle a little with the balance required to not make Curtis too arch, becoming a little too hand-wringing in the second act. This is perhaps due to a rather basic directorial view from Terence O’Connell, which offers nothing in innovation and presents scenes in a very rudimentary fashion.
The opportunity for invention is restricted however considering Jacob Battista’s set design, which limits the main playing space to about the size of two car parks. With the cast stuck in a wide narrow space at the front of the stage, Darren Stack’s choreography is restrained to tight, simple formations that have to constantly side step one another. A scaffolded playing area over the band is made limited use of for performance, but could have more successfully housed them above the playing space.
Opening night was witness to a number of technical difficulties in the first act; lighting seemed to be searching out performers and never finding them in an eclectic mix of states, while a complete no-show from an audio track for the ‘soft’ version of ‘Cadillac Car’ left performers discombobulated. Act two proved that operation, rather than design was the cause for the odd lighting and some lovely light creations adorned the finale. Beyond the missing track, audio was clear and well-balanced. Costumes form Daniel Harvey are a mixed result, however good considering the requirements and a no-doubt limited budget. But putting Effie in plaid trousers for ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ is pretty unforgivable.
It’s always exciting to see a well-known Broadway show on our stages for the first time and this production is enjoyable for its strong vocals and music production. What it does make apparent though is inherent weaknesses in the book and score that make Dreamgirls an entertaining show, but not an unmissable one.
For tickets: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au
Photo credit: Belinda Strodder