by John Simon
"...Without the dizzying visual riches that distracted the gaze and mind, the characters thrash about like cardboard puppets..."
When a beautiful woman removes her makeup, she is likely to be just as beautiful. When a homely one removes her makeup, the result is likely to be -- well, like the current revival of Dreamgirls. Purporting to be a replica of Michael Bennett's spectacular original production, this is, in fact, the bus-and-truck version of the show with most of its stunning technology gone or drastically reduced. We are now largely dependent on Tom Eyen's book and lyrics and on Henry Krieger's music, which struck me as small potatoes all along.
The show concerns the way Harlem's rhythm and blues was co-opted and toned down into the downtown-disco sound. Inspired (if that's the word) by the stories of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Berry Gordy, James Brown, and some others, Dreamgirls tells about a singing group, the Dreamettes, competing on talent night at the old Apollo. They are spotted by Curtis Taylor Jr., an unscrupulous Cadillac salesman, who becomes their agent. He rigs things so that they will lose, turns them into a backup group for the soul singer James Thunder Early, and starts an affair with Effie, the vocally strongest but visually weak (or fattest) of the three, while also exploiting the songwriting skills of C.C., her brother. Lorrell, another Dreamette, gets involved with James, who, through Curtis's nationwide bribing of disc jockeys, climbs the charts with the girls right behind him.
Now Curtis dumps James, whose soul singing is going out of fashion, and starts clandestinely carrying on with Deena, the prettiest of the trio. When Effie finds out and becomes obstreperous (not merely in her singing), Curtis fires her and makes C.C. drop her, too. She is replaced by the comely Michelle. Curtis changes the group's name to the Dreams, and, with a tamer, more homogenized sound and more of his skullduggery, they climb to the top of the charts-thus also betraying C.C.'s art, such as it is. That is about as much plot as you need to know to grasp that we have here a giant gossip column blind item about the selling, in both senses, of soul.
Yet schematic and sensationalist as Even's book is, it is still superior to his lyrics: mostly unrhymed, prosaic banalities that state, restate, and re-restate the obvious. But the score ñ here comes the kicker ñ switches between what the characters perform professionally and what they are thinking and saying in private, with relatively sparse dialogue and much recitative. The trouble with this recitativo ñ shall we call it demisecco? ñ is its musical desiccation, and though it flows seamlessly and cinematically into the set pieces, these, too, suffer from dearth of invention and variety. It may be objected that Motown and other models for the Dreamgirls score sound no different, which may, worse luck, be true, but is no excuse.
There was, originally, the brilliantly multifarious and breakneck staging by Michael Bennett, who was too ill to attend to such matters. But part of Bennett's strength was always his choice of collaborators, and two of those -- Bob Avian, as production supervisor, and Michael Peters, the co-choreographer -- are back on the job. They do the best they can, and Theoni V. Alldredge's lush costumes are still on target; other members of the original team, however, have had to shortchange themselves and us. The five celebrated towers studded with swiveling colored spotlights have shrunk in number and size, and are now handpushed instead of moving by disembodied electronic magic. A typical loss occurs in "Steppin' to the Bad Side," where, on bridges ascending beyond the proscenium, rows of dancers acted out, in dramatic backlighting, a huge payola number. Reduced to mere stage level and a handful of dancers, the payola piece doesn't pay off. Several other lavishly designed, staged, and lighted numbers similarly bite the dust of economy required by a truckable production geared to smaller stages and more modest equipment. Tharon Musser's lighting seems less opulent now (Musser's original lighting plot was more intricate than Eyen's plot), and, though still impressive, is far less dazzling.
It has been argued that what the show loses in razzmatazz it gains in warm humanity. But for warm humanity we need fully realized human characters, however fallible and selfish. Deprived of the dizzying visual riches that distracted the gaze and mind from the impoverished clichÈs of the words and music, the characters now thrash about like those two-dimensional cardboard cutout puppets that lack even the thickness of marionettes. And many of the cast cannot help, either.
As Curtis, Weyman Thompson has little voice and less personality. Mostly he stands there, his face and body curiously concave, a flattened-out version of the debonair and demonic. The other men are weak, too, with the luminous exception of Herbert L. Rawlings Jr., whose James Thunder Early sings, dances, and acts with heart and soul and body, and humor and pathos to spare. For the rest, the women do better, Lillias White, in the key role of Effie, is less tubby than the original's Jennifer Holliday, whose standby she was, and commendably sings rather than caterwauls the showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (that prosy title line alone, much repeated, should give you an idea of the lyrics), which I found a major relief. As Deena, Alisa Gyse is attractive, though perhaps not quite spirited enough, which is made up for by Arnetia Walker's Lorrell, who is at times rather too much so. Susan Beaubian is adequate in the routine part of Michelle.
But how the show drags on, especially in the second act, deprived now of the glitter of hotels and nightclubs, the recording-studio and backstage frippery and clutter. Robert Graves once suggested that David Copperfield could be greatly shortened and vastly improved just by omitting the word "little" in its manifold appearances. By cutting three words -- "baby," "dream," and "me" ñ from Dreamgirls at least sometimes, the running time could shed a mauvais quart d'heure, and we'd all be better off for it.