Book and Lyrics: Tom Eyen; Music: Henry Krieger. At: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire. Tickets: 847-634-0200 or www.marriotttheatre.com; $41-$49. Runs through: Oct. 28
Back when Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway in 1981, one of many elements critics singled out for praise was director/choreographer Michael Bennett's "cinematic" staging.
Now that Lincolnshire's Marriott Theatre is reviving Dreamgirls, it's great to point out that the same "cinematic" adjective also applies as a praiseworthy element of director/choreographer Marc Robin's ever-shifting staging. It not only suits the show's year-hopping structure, but the venue's in-the-round space.
So if you only know Dreamgirls from the 2006 film starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles, now's the time to experience the show in its original form. (For the most part, Effie White is allowed her applause at the end of the Act I showstopper "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going" rather than being pulled off stage as in Bennett's original production). Audiences will get to appreciate the show's largely sung-through recitative, which was changed into spoken dialogue for the film. Also, don't expect to hear any interpolated songs added to the film (like in the 2010 national tour at the Cadillac Palace Theatre).
Plot-wise, Dreamgirls is about the rise of an African-American girl group called The Dreams in the 1960s and '70s (modeled so closely on The Supremes that it's rumored Diana Ross threatened a lawsuit). But more importantly, Dreamgirls looks at the gains and drawbacks of the "mainstreaming" of Black culture for white audiences.
This is seen in the way wheeling-and-dealing manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Byron Glenn Willis) promotes the more photogenic Deena Jones (Britney Coleman) to sing lead while demoting his lover, Effie White (Raena White), who has the better and more powerful singing voice. Curtis also seemingly tames the wild and soul-filled headliner James "Thunder" Early, causing him to try and reclaim his sound at a conflict-filled moment with his lover of many years, Lorrell Robinson (Rashidra Scott).
The whole cast of Marriott Theatre's Dreamgirls is great and filled with dynamo singers (though the Marty of Kevin Barthel seemed to stumble over a few of his lines on opening night). The show is truly a feast for the ears and eyes, especially with Doug Peck's groove-filled music direction and costume designer Nancy Missimi providing a parade of luxurious period outfits all spectacularly lit up by Jesse Klug's showbiz lighting designs.
If there is one quibble to level against the Marriott's Dreamgirls, it's that everything is so super-slick right from the beginning. We don't really get to see any rough edges in the performers' singing styles or behavior that later get smoothed over.
But with so many plusses working in favor of the Marriott's Dreamgirls, count your lucky stars that you have another chance to experience such a great production of an iconic 1980s Broadway show.