<i>Dreamgirls</i>, A Musical, Is Revived
by Frank Rich
The marquee at the Ambassador Theater says that Broadway's new edition of Dreamgirls is "the Michael Bennett production,î but one has real reason to fear that the billing is a case of wishful promotion. Mr. Bennett, disabled by illness, has been inactive as a director for well over a year. And how could his initial production of Dreamgirls, which ran from 1981 to 1985 at the Imperial, fit into the Ambassador anyway? A small house with a shallow stage, the Ambassador can't meet the physical requirements of most modern musicals, let alone those of a show whose controversial Robin Wagner set featured electronically mechanized towers and bridges. This ìMichael Bennett production" of Dreamgirls can only be ñ and in fact is ñ a bus-and-truck touring company, stripped down by its director two years ago for fleet and economical travel on the road. When the curtain rises at the Ambassador, we see a stage nearly as bare as that for Mr. Bennett's Chorus Line: a black backdrop, a few hand-twirled "towers" that might have been constructed with a kid's Erector set, a small constellation of theatrical lights.
For anyone who loved Dreamgirls last time ñ a fanaticism that prompted, in my not atypical case, roughly a dozen viewings ñ the present, toy-scale version arrives at a jolt. But once that shock wears off, an even greater surprise is in store: one is knocked out all over again by what still is the most exciting staging of a Broadway musical in this decade.
The show at the Ambassador proves to be "the Michael Rennett production" of Dreamgirls, all right, even if it's not the original one.
Nearly all of the director's moves remain intact, and, bereft of most accouterments, their unstoppable choreographic flow seems more impressive than ever. The critics of the first Dreamgirls derided it as a triumph of high tech over art (this in the innocent pre-Cats era) and bemoaned its lack of dancing. The touring version reveals that the entire show is danced. It's not machinery or scenery but Mr. Bennett's talent for shaping stage space and propelling bodies to cinematic effect that sends the show hurtling through the night like lightning. As performed by an enthusiastic young cast in its new and, by Broadway musical standards, exceptionally cozy circumstances, Dreamgirls tightens its emotional grip, too.
The libretto, by Tom Eyen, is as thematically contemporary as Fences. In telling the story of a black singing trio that rises from urban poverty in the 1960's to national stardom a decade later, Mr. Eyen does not so much rehash gossip about Diana Ross and the Supremes as dramatize the cultural emasculation that can be the price of American show-biz success. As the Dreams "cross over" from the rhythm-and-blues ghetto to the mainstream hit parade, they leave behind soul music for a "smoother," as in whiter, sound, betraying their art and heritage, not to mention their souls and each other, along the way. Mr. Eyen's cleverly constructed, at times savage, backstage saga is matched by Henry Krieger's score. The songs, wittily orchestrated by Harold Wheeler, emulate and parody black music from its Apollo renaissance to its disco dilution. In one tart number, "Cadillac Car," Mr. Krieger illustrates each step of the progression by which angry, heartfelt music can be tamed into homogenized schlock while Mr. Eyen's double-edged lyrics concomitantly describe the empty dreams of material success that induce the Dreams to sell out.
Dreamgirls never does stop singing: seven-character family disputes are set to music along with the pastiche oldies performed by the Dreams and their Motown peers. As directed by Mr. Bennett, the show never stops pulsating, either. We are constantly whipped from the wings to center stage, from recording studio to dressing room, from Harlem to Hollywood. Although there are 20 different scenes and no specific signposts in the skeletal set, we don't have to consult the Playbill's listing to figure out where we are. By sending the performers through the blazing Technicolor hues and backstage shadows Tharon Musser's intricate lighting design and by constantly reconfiguring the otherwise unfurnished stage with the tower units and simple drops, Mr. Bennett keeps us precisely oriented throughout his montage. Theoni V. Aldredge's gorgeous costumes aside, the show's visual vocabulary is as austere and abstract as a Mondrian canvas - but it's so evocative that the theatergoer's imagination is involuntarily enlisted to fill in the artfully implied details
A few memorable images from the original Dreamgirls have been lost. ìSteppin' to the Bad Side," a song about payola, no longer ends with ranks of music-industry gangsters ascending above the proscenium arch on bridges. But Mr. Bennett's new conclusion to the song still makes its point: As the pin-striped crooks proliferate in the cash-green light at the stage's rear, the singers benefiting from their payoffs skip out toward the audience, in the bright red, white and blue costumes that emblemize their all-American, if corrupt, success. Other dazzling coups from the original Dreamgirls are re-created by manual means of propulsion. The devastating Act I conclusion, in which the most soulful of the Dreams, Effie, is summarily dumped from the group for a more assimilated singer (and sex object), still end, with the theatrical equivalent of a zoom shot, followed by a dissolve. As Effie sings out a painful blues, she is literally wiped off the stage by the slick new Dreams who pander to Las Vegas in her wake.
Lillias White, who plays Effie, brings down the house in that number (''And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going''), much as her illustrious predecessor, Jennifer Holliday, did. Ms. White's is a fine performance that emphasizes the character's proud ethnic roots more than her ugly duckling physique. Some of the other acting is broad, but the singing is as forceful as ever. The cast's superior members include Weyman Thompson as a Cadillac salesman, who devolves into a music-industry Machiavelli, and Herbert L. Rawlings Jr. as James Thunder Early, an irrepressible James Brown figure who loses his career but not his integrity when his unalloyed brand of soul passes out of fickle pop fashion
The evening's co-choreographer, Michael Peters, and production supervisor, Bob Avian, have no doubt played important roles themselves in preserving the dynamic energy and precision of the staging. The ingenuity with which Mr. Wagner and Ms. Musser compress their original work is a textbook demonstration of how imagination, not budget, is the crucial factor in theatrical design. Although this leaner Dreamgirls may not make converts of those who found the original version hard-edged and raucous, it will surely fascinate the partisans. Here is a Michael Bennett production that afford the audience an unusually intimate perspective on each minute detail that contributes to the seamless whole. The art of Dreamgirls lives in those details, and so does the striking vision of one of the most brilliant showmen the Broadway musical has known.