Dreamin' and Truckin'

by Clive Barnes

Have you ever seen a dream trucking? Should you have idly wondered what a bus-and-truck tour version of a lush Broadway musical looks like, you pampered jades of New York now have your opportunity.

The smaller-scaled, re-jigged touring version of Dreamgirls is ending its peregrinations across the country with a limited New York season, and opened at the Ambassador Theater last night.

And the audience for such a venture? Well, apart from some singularly curious New Yorkers wanting to see what happens to big shows when they leave the Big Apple, there should, during the dog days of summer, also be quite a few visiting out-of-towners who missed it at home and can now catch up.

Michael Bennett's musical is intentionally a lot less slick this second time around. The lavish production values ñ except for Theoni V. Aldredge's ornately exaggerated costumes - are gone, and more emphasis, it is said, has been placed on the personal drama. Perhaps.

Yet it is still pretty much the same show. Despite the reduction of razzle-dazzle, the basic Dreamgirls remains precisely as it ever was ñ no worse, but no better.

Indeed without so much of the original surface glitter, the musical itself can be seen and heard with less seductive distraction. This, however, is no advantage.

The original Dreamgirls struck me as the most over-hyped show ever to hit town, its insincere glitz and tawdry glamour matching its crass story and feebly imitative music.

When the show originally opened it divided the critics. Most felt as I did, but for two or three, it was, in the words of the New York Times, "Broadway history being made."

I rather doubt whether any history lessons are to be provided by this cut-down revival; although it will be interesting to see whether, unlike lightning, hype can strike in the same place twice.

Tom Eyen's book ñ we can disregard his trivial lyrics ñ is naturally still the same tatty backstage story, although, if memory serves, it is dished up with rather less of the fancy operatic recitative than before.

It is a story of black aspiration and chicanery in the pop-music business, with black artists crossing over and finally making it in the white world, but at some grievous loss to their pure black souls.

Fascinatingly the show has an all-white creative team, even though, apart from a couple of white chorus faces, the entire cast is all-black.

One is somehow reminded of baseball ñ where the guys are considered good enough to play, but not to manage.

The entertainment-biz saga that unfolds here tells of black music traveling from soul and rhythm 'n' blues, through rock and Motown to disco.

It is seen through the ups and downs of a singing group much like the Supremes, with their original lead singer, the tragic Florence Ballard (the ending is happy in the show), and a soul-singer much like James Brown, together with a cutthroat manager who Machiavellianly tries to turn everything into his own nightmarish dream of power.

The women get romantically entangled with the men, which is naturally bad news. But then every backstage cliche known to Hollywood is mercilessly fulfilled, except for the comic relief that is usually demanded of the genre. This is serious business, with no room for clowning.

The score by Henry Krieger is about as memorable as light elevator disco, everything sounds new but nothing sounds fresh.

When the show was in fact new it did have two great things going for it ñ marvelous things that transcended the general hype and were, I think, universally recognized even by the show's most fervent detractors.

These were the staging and creative packaging of Michael Bennett, and the performance, in the leading role of Effie ñ the rejected "Ballard" figure ñ of the 21-year-old Jennifer Holliday.

There were other terrific performers originally ñ particularly Ben Harney and Cleavant Derricks (the same man responsible for the vocal arrangements, which even this time round give the music its strongest touch of authenticity) ñ but Miss Holliday had the makings of a national Holliday about her.

Lillias White, the new Effie, is just fine, but simply no match for her predecessor. The company as a whole does have that special cohesion that a touring ensemble picks up ñ the sort of thing you notice in dance companies ñ and this assists the new stress on family drama rather than spectacle.

And as for the spectacle, as for the staging Bennett's new and simpler concept, worked in conjunction with the set designer Robin Wagner, is intelligent but lacks the flash that made the first production seem at least theatrically impressive.

Nevertheless Bob Avian, now the hands-on director, has gotten together a staging and performance that theater-starved communities in, say, Oshkosh, might welcome, and it could even play in Peoria.

If there is any moral in all of this, it might be that bus-and-truck touring companies thinking of coming to Manhattan should just "Keep on Truckin'."

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