In 1981, a new musical hit the Broadway stage and a classic was born. Dreamgirls was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won six, including Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Jennifer Holiday, who took on the iconic role of Effie White (which was originally intended for Nell Carter, but she signed on for the TV series Gimme a Break instead). It wasn’t until 2006, after many tours and revivals, that the show finally came to the big screen and again the actress playing Effie White was awarded, this time it was Jennifer Hudson winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (which should have been Best Actress but the studio felt her chances of winning were better in the supporting category that year in which Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth).
Now the show comes to Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD for a two-and-a-half month engagement. The Dreamgirls story is probably familiar by now, even if you haven’t seen the show since it was rumored to have been heavily influenced by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes — although everyone involved with the original production denies any such connection (but there are many) saying it was based on an amalgamation of girl groups and Motown singers of the 1960s. But the spectre of The Supremes hangs heavily over the story which finds three friends coming together as The Dreamettes and attempting to win Amateur Night at the Apollo. But popular singer James “Thunder” Early just lost his back-up singers, so the contest is rigged to make sure The Dreamettes lose so they can be convinced to work with Early. Except Effie is a holdout but she is sweet-talked into the gig and the girls hit the road for a ten week tour. Along the way, Effie falls in love with manager Curtis Taylor and Lorrell falls in love with Jimmy while Deana warns Effie that her heart will be broken. Little did she know at the time that it would be Deana who would do the most damage to the relationship with Effie as Curtis pushes Effie to the background of the group and their life, eventually falling for Deana. Old wounds are re-opened when Effie’s estranged songwriting brother C.C. pens a song for Deana and The Dreams and then gives it to Effie as a token to repair their relationship. The song climbs the charts but Curtis does all he can to put Deana’s version at the top of the charts resulting in a legal face off. Can Effie and Deana repair their friendship, or has Curtis’ shady deals ruined any chance they had at reconciliation?
Toby’s Dreamgirls comes in a fairly stripped down production with minimal set pieces, but that just allows the amazing cast to shine even brighter. And with such a strong and talented cast, it’s hard to say that any one person steals the show. Sequina Dubose’s Deana is actually a sympathetic character, one who is caught in the middle of the whole situation and then realizes how she’s been used by Curtis. Dubose gives Deana a very innocent, shy quality at first, but as time passes she grows as Deana becomes more famous and more secure in her own talents. It’s a very nicely modulated performance and Dubose uses her talents to also give Deana a softer voice when she is first thrust into the spotlight and then becomes a real powerhouse as she grows. Ashley Johnson’s Lorrell is the third wheel of the group, not getting much to do in the first act, but she also grows more confident as Lorrell realizes her relationship with Jimmy is going nowhere, especially since he hasn’t left his wife in the seven years they’ve been together. But when she gets to her big confrontational number with Jimmy, Johnson can really belt it out. Another terrific performance.
It’s really hard and unfair to single out just a few people in a show like this where everyone is just so good and all of the main actors are at the top of their game including Decarlo Raspberry (Curtis), Anwar Thomas (Marty) and Denaé Fielder (Michelle). But I also have to point out three major talents who do come close to stealing every scene they’re in. First is Da’Von Moody, making his Toby’s debut (and Toby’s has a great track record with the new talent they bring to the stage). C.C. is more of a supporting role but Moody makes the most of every moment he’s on stage. He can act, he can sing, and boy can he dance. Moody is just magnetic when he’s on stage, and I found it hard to take my eyes off of him, and he’s got some seriously sexy dance moves during the “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” number (and off stage he is delightfully humble). This kid is going to go places.
If there is a scene stealer in the show, it has to be Bryan Jeffrey as Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Jimmy is the flamboyant love child of James Brown and Little Richard, and Jeffrey plays him to perfection, giving him a little bit of Kevin Hart comedy as well. And does he have a voice! Jeffrey also nicely portrays the on stage Jimmy persona and his off stage reality as two very well delineated parts of the character, easily turning off the flamboyance when he’s trying to deal with Lorrell or all the bickering among Deana, Curtis, Effie and anyone else caught in their crossfire. And he’s got some serious moves too. He’s brash and grounded when he needs to be and Jeffrey is a real crowd-pleaser.
And we can’t overlook Crystal Freeman who plays Effie. Freeman is a pure powerhouse and the role of Effie is actually quite difficult as she is the one who really goes through a lot of changes. Effie sees herself as kind of the “mother” of The Dreamettes, always making decisions for the group because she is the frontwoman. When she gets pushed to the background, we have to feel for her and Freeman is able to make us do that but then she also has to make Effie almost a villain as she becomes more and more difficult to work with, either as part of The Dreams or when she’s on her own trying to launch her solo career. Effie is her own worst enemy and Freeman has to tread a fine line to make us feel sympathy for Effie one moment and disappointment in her actions the next, and then getting us all back on her side again when it’s clear Curtis is trying to screw her over with the song “One Night Only”. Freeman does all that, and it goes without saying that she absolutely slays with Effie’s signature number “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going” to close the first act. And it’s a good thing that’s where it falls because we all need a few moments to recover from that seminal moment in the show. That song is so powerful it helped both Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson win a Tony and an Oscar respectively, and Ms. Freeman should be winning all the awards for this performance as well.
With a production that relies very little on sets and props, director Kevin McAllister uses the in the round space at Toby’s to its full advantage with actors coming on and off stage in all directions, and the lighting design by Lynn Joslin also plays a major role in setting the scenes. Lawrence B. Munsey’s costume designs for Deana, Effie, Lorrell and Michelle are outstanding, going from the mundane, as the girls are getting their start, to the fabulous by the end of the show. And the choreography by Shalyce Hembey nicely replicates moves seen from the girl groups of the era, gives Jimmy much of his James Brown style, and is positively masculine and sensual during the “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” number with C.C., Curtis, Jimmy and Wayne. And as always, the seven piece orchestra, led by Ross Scott Rawlings (or Nathan Scavilla) can give any national touring company or Broadway orchestra a run for their money. A very talented group of people all around.
Dreamgirls will play at Toby’s through November 12 so get your tickets now! Don’t wait until the date you want to go is closer because these shows sell out (and if you want to take in the holiday show Miracle on 34th Street opening November 16, now is the time to book your date). Check out our link for pricing and availability, and don’t forget to save space for a delicious dinner before the show (or brunch if you hit an afternoon performance) and try the delicious frozen ‘Cadillac Car’ drink special.
Dreamgirls runs about 2 hours 50 minutes with one twenty minute intermission.