Dreamgirls takes audience back in time

by Amy Kingsley

Things were different in 1981.

The Sugarhill Gang had a hit two years earlier with “Rapper’s Delight,” but hip hop barely blipped across popular music radar screens. And the youth hadn’t yet embarked on their expendable income-fueled conquest of the cultural landscape, which meant the Billboard charts were much more hospitable to stodgy, mustachioed crooners like Darryl Hall and John Oates. The few singers of color who did crack the top of the charts did so with white-bread soul like Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” and the Lionel Richie/Diana Ross ballad “Endless Love.”

Out of that culture, at the tail end of 1981, Broadway fashioned the musical Dreamgirls about a black, all-girl singing group from 1962 Chicago called the Dreams. A joint production by the NC A&T theater department and Community Theater of Greensboro is bringing the Dreams’ story to the east side.

Staged against a stationary, split-level set, the three Dreams pit their musical talents against a music industry dominated by white tastemakers and male management. The show is a whirlwind; Act One opens with a talent contest where three groups vie for the top spot, introducing the audience to early conflicts via musical medley.

The Dreams, comprised of heavyset Effie White, youngster Lorrell Robinson and the glamorous Deena Jones, sweep into this situation late, of course, but manage to sweet talk the master of ceremonies into keeping them on the bill. Their performance coincides with a walkout by the backup singers for James “Thunder” Early, a popular R&B singer. A car salesman, Curtis Taylor Jr., looking to break into show business wrangles the girls, throws his financial weight around and manages to win them employment backing the charismatic Early on a national tour.

White, played by Weaver Academy junior Alden Quick, distinguishes herself from the outset as the talented, imperious leader of the group. She balks at backing Early, but gives in quickly, besotted by Taylor.

By the end of Act One, similarities between the fictional Dreams and real-life Supremes surface. Taylor sidelines White professionally and emotionally, and the gospel-voiced singer soon finds herself replaced by a pop-friendlier bandmate, like the real-life Supreme Florence Ballard. Jones gets the Diana Ross treatment as Taylor sculpts the trio into a more glamorous, less soulful product. Subplots abound, as do undeveloped examinations of the role of race in show business. White’s brother, the songwriter CC, rises to prominence alongside his sibling by penning palatable but uninteresting material for the Dreams and Early. The first manager quits when he can no longer stand the sight of former loose cannon/soul genius Jimmy Early belting Perry Como-like from a tuxedo shirt.

This production shines when Early is on stage. The part is acted by Jerry Lowe, a finalist in Community Theater of Greensboro’s “Triad Idol”, who possesses both the voice and stage presence to pull off Early’s amalgamation of James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

The musical suffers a bit in Act Two with the absence of White and Early. Robinson, played by Jessica Williams of NC A&T, counters the overbearing White with her fun, pleasing nature. But Jones’ character remains sketchy, forced to carry much of Act Two with minimal pathos created by writer Tom Eyen’s faint stabs at characterization.

Eyen ends up conflating the dangers of artistic compromise with the ethical pitfalls of payola. His characters end up either overcoming or graduating from the homogeneity of the pop music industry, unlike Ballard, who sank into obscurity and died impoverished at age 32. The Dreams’ real dilemma involves shaking loose of the men around them. Success comes after the women ditch Early and Taylor, two boosters turned anchors.

Whatever the story’s shortcomings (and there always are when the plot turns on choruses and refrains), the production moves quickly and the music and singing are polished. The costumes gorgeously evoke the high style of 1960s Motown with pinks, golds, sparkles and sexy cuts. Hollywood is following the success of the film adaptation of Chicago with one of Dreamgirls set to open in December. By then the Greensboro version will have long closed, but the power politics of sex, race and singing will still be alive and well.

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