Bennett Remains <i>Dreamgirls</i> Star

by Douglas Watt

The Ambassador Theater marquee reads "Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls," an unassailably accurate designation for the work within, a first-class touring production of the 1981 Broadway musical that has been playing across the land and as far away as Japan since late in 1985. For it is an uncommon feat that the late young director-choreographer accomplished in transforming a trite book - a pop-opera libretto, really - and mainly functional score into a dazzingly paced and ingeniously conceived series of stage images that keeps the show on the move.

Watching it the other night, while still saddened by the awareness that there would be no more Bennett musicals, I was again impressed by the skill and imagination with which Bennett, aided by an engaging cast and Harold Wheeler's resourceful orchestrations, transcended the average, though topically entertaining material. Having given us his masterpiece, the still-running A Chorus Line, followed by the shortlived Ballroom, he was obviously taken by this story of a female vocal trio, the Dreams, to create a 2 1/2-hour apotheosis of body movement.

It is derived from, but in no way imitative of, the self-choreographed singing groups of the '60s and early '70s on the order of the Jackson Five, the Shirelles and others, identified with the Motown look and sound. And though that's all behind us now, it remains timely as an influential part of our cultural heritage.

In many respects, I prefer this company to the original. While Jennifer Holliday's fiercely intense rendition of the evening's show-stopper, "And I Am Telling You," justifiably brought down the house, I found her extreme grimacing (Irene Selznick is said to have observed, "If I saw that happen in real I life, I'd pretend not to notice") less affecting than the equally aggrieved delivery of the new Effie, Lillias White. And, fine as Cleavant Derricks was as the mercurial James Thunder Early, he couldn't really come near the astonishingly athletic dance movements and vocal pyrotechnics of the incomparable Herbert L. Rawlins Jr., the current Early.

I was also taken with the sultry and sexy appeal of Arnetia Walker (Lorell) who, along with Alisa Gyse (Deena) and Yvette Louise Cason (Charlene), establishes the sleek Dreams look.

But again, it is Bennett's hand that is everywhere in evidence. Whether shaping the singing routines (several upstage and facing away toward an unseen audience), or creating a frieze of payola experts, or posing the girls for a photo session, it is Bennett who remains the true star of Dreamgirls.

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