Welcome to Motown in the OC. I am a gen X’er that grew up with the tail end of what was the height of Motown and the beginning of Alternative Rock as we know it now. Talk about bringing back memories and a story that at times hits home. Producer John Breglio and the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC) bring this high energy trip thru trials and tribulations of ‘Dreamgirls’. From the opening of the show you know this is going to be a powerful force of voices and visuals and that is just from the ensemble and the elaborate moving stage tall LED walls.
Robert Longbottom has come out to direct and choreograph an amazing group of individuals in this new touring cast. Granted taking Michael Bennett’s original direction and choreography along with Henry Krieger’s music and book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, you practically have to be completely idiotic to screw this show up. Longbottom has stepped up the ante in not only how the show is stage but in the casting of a lead cast and ensemble that could rival any cast out there.
‘Dreamgirls’ follows the singing group of The Dreamettes as the start as amateurs on the famed Apollo Theater to their shot to stardom as the face of a new kind of music. We follow the lead singer Effie White along with her Dreamettes, Deean Jones and Lorrell Robinson as they try to make it in the music industry. They are helped along the way with Effie’s brother C.C. who writes the songs, Curtis Taylor Jr. who is the manager, James “Thunder” Early the show stopping singer who gives them their first break and Marty Madison who is James’ agent. The Dreamettes start out as James’ backup singers which Effie, at first does not want to do, to their eventual own headlining. During this time Lorrell falls for James, Effie for Curtis and C.C. helps change the style of songs each sings. Of course the story takes a turn when Curtis shuffles up the group and replaces Effie with Deean as the lead of the group. This starts the inevitable split of Effie from the group and the true nature of things to come.
Mixed through this similar parallel of the Supremes, Barry Gordy and the birth of Motown, is some of the most powerful songs written in the style of the times from 1962-1975. Bringing these songs to life is American Idol runner up Syesha Mercado as Deean, Adrienne Warren as Lorrell, Margaret Hoffman as Michell Morris the eventual replacement of Effie, Chaz Lamar Shepard as Curtis Taylor Jr., Trevon Davis as C.C. White, Milton Craig Nealy as Marty Madison, Chester Gregory as James “Thunder” Early, and introducing Moya Angela as Effie. I will not forget a strong ensemble of singer/dancers. As this talented cast goes Moya Angela is the strength of this show with the most powerfully beautiful voice I have heard in ages. She steps up to the plate and sits right next to those who made this part famous. I must say, having heard Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson both sing this part, Moya has truly made this part her own and has a slight edge over both of their performances. Moya’s rendition of ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ is haunting and so emotional that you could see everyone was emotionally touched. However, truly stealing the show, for the pure portrayal of any of the characters, is Chester Gregory. Let me think of how to say this about him, DAMN. Chester has brought his ‘A’ game and invokes the passion of Chuck Barry, the antics of Lil Richard and a sprinkle of the range of a more modern singer like Prince and made “Thunder” the most loveable character to watch. Syesha does a wonderful job as Deean and keeping that ‘diva’ persona and voice throughout the show. Adrienne is fun to watch as the more clueless of the trio but is a joy to watch as the character grows as the group progresses. Chaz’ portrayal of Curtis really makes you want to hate this man as the story unfolds and yet in the end you feel sorry for him. Trevon, Milton and Margaret tend to do their parts remarkably well for the characters they portray. Let’s not forget the ensemble that does an incredible task of changing their style and characters several times during the performance.
Another star of the show that doesn’t receive credit is Longbottoms talented crew of designers. Scenic designer Robin Wagner created a wall of LED’s as the backdrop rather than your traditional flats. This masterful piece of technology helps lighting director Ken Billington to bring even more life to the stage as we see the walls split and interact with the actors as either the ‘true’ stage backdrop to moving around and giving us the ‘backstage’ aspect of the show. William Ivey Long puts together the most elaborate change in costume designs I’ve ever seen. In some cases the costumes are hidden within one another and just blow you away when in a blink of an eye there changed. Sometimes it’s like a magic show right in front of your eyes.
If I had to give any true criticism it is very minimal in nature. Some of the ensemble in full cast scenes weren’t quite pulling the same zeal as the rest of the cast. Syesha in the ‘Dreamgirls’ song seemed to not be heard when she would hit her mid range. Not sure if this was her or a technical issue with the lavalieres. And in regards to the technical side; there were a few instances sound issues with a couple lavalieres that caused some feedback and during the end of the show one of the walls did not want to cooperate and was stuck in the rafters.
Overall, GO SEE THIS SHOW. Was that a little forward? Okay, please go see his show if you enjoy a good story and the sounds that many of my generation and that before ours grew up with. I take to heart the story as I can relate to Effie in that I did things my way and worry more about me than what is good for everyone involved. It brought Effie down to the lowest level and with the help of those who cared about her lifted her up and she overcame what once trampled her. Take that to heart. Those around us affect us as much as we affect them. I know now as Effie learned, those around you, that truly love you will guide you, not do it for you. They will always be there and never let you look back. So get up, turn off the TV, go down to OCPAC and see this show before ‘Dreamgirls’ leaves on May 2. Be safe and live life and never look back. Tickets available online at OCPAC.org, or by phone at (714) 556-2787.
P.S. My heart and thanks to Tony and Leah for guiding me. I miss you and love you both.