Playwright: Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger, with additional material by Willie Reale. At: Broadway In Chicago at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph. Phone: 800-775-2000; $18-$85. Runs through: Jan. 31
The principal theme is sisters doing it for themselves, of course, but Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's behind-the-music chronicle can also be viewed as a docudrama of racial integration and the introduction of Rhythm & Bluesa genre once called "race" musicinto mainstream American culture. Unlike the educational pageants at Black Ensemble, however, the timeline in Eyen's book is not that of individual names and dates, but instead, a fable invoking images at once nebulous and familiar.
Our story opens with a trio calling themselves the Dreamettes ( think Shirelles, Crystals, Supremes ) losing a talent contest at New York's famed Apollo Theatre, but securing a job singing back-up for headliner James "Thunder" Early ( think James Brown ) . Making for progress, setbacks and hard decisions on their path to success are their ambitious manager, whose commercial savvy too often exceeds his ethics, and seductive mentors like the aforementioned Early, whose love for himself exceeds any he can give to any woman.
Fame, wealth, true love and a mouth-watering wardrobe comprise a formula capable of drawing audiences anywhere, anytimeand so Dreamgirls, from its premiere in 1981 ( at the Apollo, naturally ) to the 2006 film, has remained undiminished in its popularity. But the touring production currently playing for much too short a run at the Cad Palace is no threadbare retread, but a freshly-assembled dazzler replete with the latest in rising talent and high-tech machinery.
The former include leading ladies Moya Angela and Syesha Mercado, playing, respectively, the robust Effie ( think Aretha Franklin ) and the delicate Deena ( think Diana Ross ) , whose fortunes are dictated as much by their physiques as their vocal ranges. As for the men, it's no slight to Chaz Lamar Shepherd's interpretation of the manipulative Curtis to say that Chester Gregoryremembered in these parts for his breakout 2000 portrayal of the charismatic Jackie Wilsonenjoyed the home-field advantage on opening night with an array of show-stopping octave-leaping fermatas and gymnastic swagger in the role of Jimmy Early.
The real star of the show, however, are the optical effectswalls of sparkling LEDs, pinspots masking lightning costume changes and aerial-view video monitors facilitatingwould I lie to you?Busby Berkeley-style kaleidoscopic graphics. Rub on your sequin-burn block and hurry to this cure for winter blahs.