The music industry is cut-throat and merciless, but it's also very sparkly. Friendships are betrayed and romances are shattered in the 1981 musical Dreamgirls, but boy, does everyone look spectacular while it's happening.
Sleek, shiny, and soulful, this Dallas Theater Center production is as much a gut-wrenching drama as it is a standing-O concert. Apollo Theater music director Michael O. Mitchell taps into the Motown heart of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's score, while director Joel Ferrell makes sure everyone, down to each ensemble member, is fully invested in the action.
Dreamgirls is a thinly veiled retelling of the rise of the Supremes — here called the Dreams — and the fracturing that's now so common in girl groups. It also touches on the integration of the lily-white Top 40 and the underhanded maneuvering of behind-the-scenes hit-makers.
In this version, that hit-maker is Curtis Taylor Jr. (Derrick Davis), who swoops in to make the young trio into stars by eventually replacing the soulful and full-figured lead singer, Effie (Marisha Wallace), with her more delicate, soft-spoken groupmate Deena (Alexis Sims). He's also carrying on an affair with Effie, who does not take the professional scorning well and lashes out onstage and off. The third member, sassy Lorrell (Kristen Bond), shoots into adulthood by coupling up with fiery performer James “Thunder” Early (Eric LaJuan Summers, leaving it all on the stage).
Effie's brother, C.C. (quiet but strong Clinton Greenspan), launches his songwriting career with the Dreams but is drawn further under Curtis' spell the more his sister acts up. Eventually, Effie is replaced completely with another girl (Traci Elaine Lee), and she's left to claw her way back to the top despite a ruined reputation.
Though Davis sings like he's in a completely different musical, his Curtis is a charming car salesman (literally) with a smooth smile and big dreams. Sims is the definition of wide-eyed innocence at the start (she has to obtain her mother's permission to go on tour), but later nails Deena's carefully crafted confidence with a deep vein of restlessness. It's no stretch to see the Diana Ross influence here. Hassan El-Amin, in his last appearance as a DTC resident acting company member, is a nice foil to Davis as the morally upstanding competing manager.
Wallace steers clear of making Effie an unlikable villain, relying on frustration and disbelief to color her reactions. In her much-anticipated Act I finale song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," a howl of sheer aggravation and determination rends from her throat, and suddenly we're right there with her, confronting every injustice we've ever been served and rooting for her to make it back to the top.
The action effortlessly switches between backstage and in the spotlight, thanks to Bob Lavallee's versatile set, which brings the onstage band front and center when appropriate. With Karen Perry’s sequined costumes and J. Jared Janas' excellent wigs, this production looks and sounds like a dream.
Dallas Theater Center's Dreamgirls runs at the Wyly Theatre through July 24.