By Martie Thompson
“DreamGirls,” now being performed at Alhambra Theatre and Dining, is probably most familiar from the critically acclaimed 2006 film, but the iconic musical actually started life on Broadway in 1981. The show follows the tumultuous rise of three Chicago friends, Effie, Deena and Lorrell, from backup singers to headliners in the 1960s and 1970s. The musical, while not completely sung through, hardly keeps still, sparkling with energy and momentum from one song number to the next.
This was a revolutionary time in American music history, when the Motown sound was prevalent and managers were scouting for the next big thing. The three young female singers, the Dreamettes, begin their career at the Apollo Theatre in a talent competition with Effie (Melessie Clark) singing the lead and Deena (Mandi Jo John) and Lorrell (Alexis Tidwell) singing backup. Although they do not win the contest, the girls catch the eye of former car salesman turned manager Curtis (Peter M. Jackson), who becomes their manager. He convinces Marty (Byron Willis), the manager for the more established Jimmy “Thunder” Early — who appears to be James Brown and Little Richard rolled into one — to hire the Dreamettes as backup singers and the story takes off. Jimmy Early is appealing portrayed by David Berry, with his over the top costumes, right down to his sparkly shoes.
A highlight of the first act is a strong rendition of “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” which begins with a macho vibe: a strutting Curtis leading male cast members in an edgy routine that threatens to overshadow the female singers’ numbers.
But then The Dreamettes’ success and Curtis’ desire to always find the next new sound brings the girls back to the forefront. In an effort to establish the girls as their own act, he renames the group The Dreams and without consulting Effie, replaces her with Deena as the lead singer and later as his girlfriend. For awhile, a jilted Effie goes through the motions as a backup singer; Clark’s eye rolling and bored stance are masterful. But eventually Effie becomes more temperamental, especially once she learns of Curtis and Deena’s affair. Curtis feels he has no choice and replaces her as a member of The Dreams with Michelle Morris (Linzy Lauren).
This leads to perhaps the show’s signature moment, when Effie appeals to Curtis in a final and ultimately futile song of defiance. Clark portrays just the right mix of desperation and conviction when singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” as the first act draws to a close.
The second act features another strong performance by Clark as she sings “I Am Changing,” displaying her metamorphosis from former diva to struggling performer trying to make a comeback. This change is further illustrated as Effie is humbly and literally dressed down at the beginning of the song, to regaining her confidence and stripping off her rags to reveal a sparkly red dress by the end of the song.
The show continues with examinations of the relationships between the now-married Curtis and Deena, long-time but still not married couple Lorrell and Jimmy, behind the scenes shenanigans in the music industry, and Effie’s comeback. Music by Henry Krieger complements book and lyrics by Tom Eyen to make “DreamGirls,” produced and directed by Tod Booth, an entertaining sojourn back to this time of cultural change represented in America’s music.
As usual, Executive Chef DeJuan Roy of The Alhambra has created a signature meal to complement the show. Patrons can choose from braised lamb shoulder, salmon croquettes or Chef DeJuan’s World Famous Fried Chicken with white barbecue sauce — and that accolade is accurately given. Strawberry shortcake or doughnuts with hot chocolate complete the dining extravaganza. A number of specialty adult beverages inspired by the show add a fun touch.
DreamGirls continues at Alhambra Theatre and Dining through May 21. Visit www.alhambrajax.com for tickets and more information.
Photo courtesy Alhambra Theatre and Dining
The Dreamettes: Deena, Effie and Lorrell plus some backup singers.