Theater by Chris Skipper
Issue 40 • June 2016 • Charlottesville

Expect soul-shaking musical performances and gut-wrenching drama in this flashy affair that keeps it all in the family.

Three belting, battling beauties command the stage in Live Arts’s latest production of Dreamgirls. With music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and book by Tom Eyen, this is one sassy, pitch-perfect tale of three longtime friends on their rise to fame, whatever the cost. The script, loosely based on the real life story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, shows that sometimes we do what it takes to survive and sometimes we just do what we want. Julie Hamberg, Artistic Director of Live Arts and Director of Dreamgirls, noted that, while based on true events, the play is a fictional affair. “We certainly drew inspiration from The Supremes … Effie getting pushed to the back due to Diana’s voice being more acceptable to white audiences is, of course, integral to our story.”

Lights up in early 1960s Harlem, New York! Three spirited young singers, Effie (Kim Riley), Lorrell (Deandra Irving), and Deena (Darkita Brown) enter an Amateur Talent Night competition at the famous Apollo Theater. Though the dazzling women entrance the judges, the manipulative, self-serving Curtis (Isreal Vaughn) makes sure that they won’t win so that he can take them on as his own. Under his guidance, the three form “The Dreamettes” with Effie as the self-appointed leader. Through the course of their showbiz trials, the women come together, fall apart, and come together again as their star rises dramatically over America.

But as the group goes to the top of the charts, their personal lives sink to the bottom. “That’s what’s interesting about this story,” Hamberg said, “who comes through victorious and at what cost? Hard lessons are learned in the journey, but at least these women come through with their souls intact.” Barreling through the late 70s, the show asks questions that face every serious performer: What would you do for fame? For simple recognition? Where is the line between protecting your family and pure self-interest? It’s a touching story of friendship and celebrity, carried by the comedic and dramatic chemistry of the ensemble.

Kim Riley brings power and passion to the role of Effie White, a woman ruled by emotions and pulled along through life by her high-soaring dreams. Riley snags many a tear jerker moment, belting her way through several show-stopping numbers including Jennifer Holliday’s iconic “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Darkita Brown’s portrayal of Deena provides an interesting look at the difference between what we do for ourselves and what we actually want to do, thrust into stardom at Effie’s expense as she is. Meanwhile, Deandra Irving provides much of the comic relief as the hilarious, beautiful Lorrell. She’s stuck in a doomed relationship with the toe-tapping, soul-singing Jimmy “Thunder” Early, played with delightful energy by Winston Smith.

Dreamgirls features outstanding musical direction by Kristin Baltes, upbeat choreography from Ike Anderson, and beautifully framed staging from Hamberg herself. The show shines in its big group numbers, riding at an extreme high from start to finish as any big ticket musical should. Said Hamberg in regards to this obvious group cohesiveness, “We agreed to trust each other enough to know that if it needed to get bigger or rev up, that we would all just do it.”

The wonderful thing about this production is that, despite the over-the-top musical numbers, plentiful costume changes, and revolving set pieces, the emotional stakes remain grounded and true to life. Through the lives of The Dreamettes, we experience the issues of race, gender, and family that confronted the performers at every turn. The historical context is prevalent throughout the plot, most notably in the shifting tastes of black popular music from soul/R&B to homogenized, marketable pop disco. “This truly is the American story,” said Hamberg, “how black Americans (and outsiders always) have had to deal with majority culture. It’s about how you break through, morph, and fit in, and what that means to your own culture and your own art.”

The Live Arts production of Dreamgirls runs from May 20 through June 11. For full schedule and tickets, visit livearts.org/dreamgirls.

Photography by Keaton Ray

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