This Time Out, 'Dreamgirls' Strikes A New Chord

by Don Shirley

Dreamgirls has blitzed into the Pantages with a new star, Sharon Brown, and a sharper focus.

No longer is it possible to interpret the show as a plea on behalf of the overweight. Brown-unlike her celebrated predecessor, Jennifer Holliday-looks as if her Effie could actually fit the conventional notion of a "dream girl" without too much strain.

She's svelte enough that the play's one line about Effie's increasing girth seems to come out of nowhere. And she's pretty enough that not for a moment do we suspect that her looks are the real reason she's demoted and then ejected from the Dreams, that fast-rising '60s female group.

Brown's Effie gets the boot for the stated reasons, pure and simple: Her voice is too powerful, and so is her personality. She's too much of a star to play second fiddle, and she's particularly nettlesome to a group that's trying to cross the racial barriers from rhythm and blues to the more innocuous, white-dominated pop charts.

Without the cosmetic issues raised by Holliday, the show may lose a little of its pathos. But its analysis of cultural history becomes clearer and more meaningful.

Watching the original Dreamgirls, cynics could drag out the old line about the opera not being over until the fat lady sings. Now, it isn't over until the black lady sings.

And sing she does. The casting wouldn't work if Brown didn't have the equipment and stage presence to justify it. But, at age 23, she has a voice that sounds invincible. And perhaps because she hasn't yet attracted the cult of worshipers who could make Holliday's performances self-conscious -- Brown never seems to be indulging in a solo recital.

The rest of this production, supervised by Bob Avian, closely follows Michael Bennett's original model. The movement never stops. Nor does the parade of Theoni Aldredge's dazzling costumes, Tharon Musser's fields of light and Robin Wagner's revolving towers.

Was there a slight decrease in glitz during the second act Las Vegas spectacle as if we weren't supposed to take as much guilty pleasure from it as we did in the original? Perhaps, although I couldn't pinpoint the differences.

At any rate, if the Vegas scene was toned down, it may have strengthened the narrative. For whatever reason, this time around I was more convinced that the other Dreams didn't enjoy the tinsel all that much, either.

As a result, the second act squabbling is more urgent and the show's happy ending more credible. I didn't keep thinking about what happened to the Dreams' real-life prototypes.

The performances of the other Dreams, Alisa Gyse as the glamorous Deena Jones and Arnetia Walker as the feisty Lorrell Robinson, may have something to do with this. Gyse, whose beauty has a faintly exotic quality, makes the show almost as much Deena's as it is Effie's (again, the absence of Holliday and her claque may be a factor here).

And Walker, who played the same role at the Shubert four years ago, is better than ever. We care almost as much about her character's affair with soul singer James Thunder Early (Herbert L. Rawlings Jr.) as we do about Effie's with the dictatorial manager (Weyman Thompson).

Then again, the performances of Thompson and Rawlings -- who sizzles as the bantam cock Early -- may have something to do with this. This is more of an ensemble than the last Dreamgirls cast.

There were a few opening night problems, which ought to be cleared up. Most were in the sound system, which occasionally went off duty during the first act and sporadically hummed along with the singers during the second.

Although Marc Falcone's direction of the Henry Krieger score was generally on target, a delicate transition in the first act's "Steppin' to the Bad Side" sounded a bit wobbly.

Generally, though, this Dreamgirls is a fresh look at a show that seems even more compelling three years down the pike. It plays only through Jan. 31, Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. (213) 410-1062.

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