“Dreamgirls” is purportedly the story of a Supremes-like girl group: Prodigiously talented teenagers rise to stardom at the hands of a ruthless Svengali, singing a jukebox worth of irresistible pop and R&B as they go along.
Paramount Theatre Aurora’s production of the 1981 musical by Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen (book and lyrics), is memorable for its depiction of the calculated way the music industry takes a trio of naive teenagers and turns them into stars without much control over their careers.
There’s indeed a jukebox worth of showstoppers here, but director Christopher D. Betts’ ensemble seems too sparse in number making most of the all-hands-on-deck-chorus numbers less than spectacular. Even the largest chorus numbers seem overwhelmed by razzle-dazzle projections by projection designer Mike Tutaj onJeffrey D. Kmiec’s set.
For example, the dance ensemble that helps usher in a Las Vegas-style set at the top of the second act is essentially reduced to a trio for most of the song. That’s hardly enough for a showstopping ensemble no matter how energetic the dancers deliver Amy Hall Garner’s choreography.
The plot that is sandwiched around the score begins as we meet Effie Melody White (Naima Alakham, who alternates in the role for select performances with Breyannah Tillman), Deena Jones (Taylor Marie Daniel) and Lorrell Robinson (Maria Lyttle) — three giggly, easily awed teens competing at a local talent show.
The talent show acts lay the groundwork for what to expect from Krieger’s score. There’s smooth-as-silk rhythm and blues from the lanky Tiny Joe Dixon (Evan Tyrone Martin); James Brown/Little Richard-inspired bombast and theatrics from Jimmy “Thunder” Early (an energetic Juwon Tyrel Perry, stepping in for Ben Toomer at Sunday night’s performance); and the Stepp Sisters (Daryn Alexus, Shantel Cribbs, Aalon Smith and Shelbi Voss), another girl group with airtight harmonies much like the Dreamettes.
Backstage oiling palms and sizing up the talent, is car salesman/aspiring music producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Lorenzo Rush Jr.). He spies in the Dreamettes something he can work with, and sells them as back-up singers to Jimmy . The fly in the ointment is Effie, who unapologetically, regally points out that they do not do back-up. The other girls pressure her as well, but Effie doesn’t change her mind until Taylor tells her how attractive he finds her. Their romance progresses as the newly named Dreams go on tour with Jimmy.
If you haven’t already seen the 2006 Oscar-winning movie starring Jennifer Hudson, or the 41-year-old stage musical, know that Taylor’s machinations orchestrating the Dreams’ rise to stardom ultimately leave Effie behind in a betrayal that’s both personal and professional.
When Alakham’s Effie hears from Taylor that her voice is too “special” to cross over into the pop charts and that she’s being replaced as lead by the more wispy-voiced Deena, you can see the emotional gut punch — and you can hear it in her seat-shaking performance of “And I’m Telling You.”
In the movie, Effie’s downfall includes addiction and homelessness. But here , Effie simply vanishes for a few scenes and then shows up again, looking fabulous and acting contrite. Eyen’s book feels abruptly incomplete as far as filling in Effie’s journey.
Deena’s ascent to icon status is similarly perfunctory, outlandish photo shoots and headlining gigs playing out in swaths of taffeta, with Daniel going all-out disco for the club version of “One Night Only,” a song Effie had originally instilled with melancholy.
Beyond Alakham’s “One Night Only,” the choral highlight comes in the first act, with the smooth-criminal stylings of “Steppin’ to the Dark Side.” Led by Rush leading an army of sharp-suited promoters bearing briefcases filled with cash, it references the “pay-to-play” radio scandals of the 1960s with stylish ruthlessness. Tellingly, it follows a memorable scene that has Taylor fuming about the millions made by Elvis on the music of Moms Mabley and Big Mama Thornton. It also follows “Cadillac Car,” Jimmy’s raunchy, sharply satirical number about consumerism. It’s been released by a trio that sounds like they’re recording easy listening music for a mega-church elevator.
As scores go, Krieger wrote a fitting tribute to the artists whose work is referenced here. But the book has problems. The happy reunion at the end is not earned. Ditto Effie’s sudden, dubious redemption. Moreover, Paramount’s production lacks polish. The result is a less than reverie-worthy “Dreamgirls.”