Finally in the West End after an ‘80s production on Broadway, Dreamgirls is sensational. Under Nick Finlow’s musical direction the pace never flags and the tunes never stop, as we dash through seven years of the Dreamettes’ (later the Dreams) bid for stardom in a world where even the music charts are segregated.
Amber Riley is superb as Effie White. She can blow the roof off when she wants to – and she does – but her softer, sweeter voice is a real thing of beauty. I Am Changing was the number of the night for me, in show that delivers on song after song. That said, when Riley belts out And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going at the end of Act I, it’s exhilaratingly powerful.
The whole show feels completely non-stop. Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are frenetic without ever tipping over into hysteria. Everything about this show should be too much, and yet it works. It’s exhausting just to watch.
This is largely down to Riley’s stunning Effie – her voice is proper shivers-down-the-spine stuff, and boy does she deliver. Liisi LaFontaine is fantastic as Deena, the quiet one who is manipulated into a sexy starlet by abusive manager/husband Curtis (a steely Joe Aaron Reid). Ibanabo Jack makes a sweet but strong Lorrell, the third of the trio, who comes into her own in Act II. All three showcase fantastic voices, especially Riley, who can turn from nightingale to eagle in the blink of an eye.
The show may focus on the Dreamgirls, but Adam J. Bernard as Jimmy Early damn near steals the show. Channelling James Brown outrageously, Bernard is electric and moves like his feet are hot and his leg bones are made of rubber. It’s impossible to watch him strut about the stage without a smile on your face, and his singing voice is fabulous, too. Tyrone Huntley as CC is another huge talent, with a voice of rare purity and sweetness. In fact, the talent on show here is phenomenal – there is not a weak link across this cast, and there’s so much razzmatazz that it leaves you blinking.
Dreamgirls looks at how white people co-opted black music, re-packaged it and made money from it. Watching Bernard’s Early try to tone down his act to make it palatable to white audiences is as funny as it is poignant, and when Effie is cut from the group in favour of thinner, more biddable Deena, it nearly brings the house down.
For all of its glitz (and there’s an awful lot of glitter) this show has a heart as big as Riley’s voice. Watching Curtis turn Deena into his own obedient doll is extremely cleverly done, and shows how insidious this kind of abusive control can be. Showbiz has a dark side, kids. Ultimately, thought, the show is about female friendship and finding out who you are. When Deena sends Curtis packing it’s a wonderful moment of solidarity and inner strength.
Gregg Barnes’s costumes and Tim Hatley’s set are sparklier than anything you’ll see in panto – Swarovski are credited as costume and set design partner and they have gone all out. Dress after crystal-encrusted dress appears, and the cumulative effect is ridiculously OTT, in the best possible way. The wardrobe department and dressers deserve (crystal) medals for making the costume changes happen so seamlessly and so rapidly.
From opening song to the final crystal curtain, Dreamgirls dazzles in every sense.
Dreamgirls is on until 6th May 2017 at the Savoy Theatre. Click here for more details.