If you like your musicals full of belting tunes then this is the show for you. Should you be looking for something a little more profound, or even a bio-show about The Supremes then you should still go but don’t get your expectations up too high.
The programme notes only cover four pages, all but one paragraph of which are devoted to a history of black women in 1960s music, mainly The Supremes, which is fair enough, and The Motown Sound. I would have loved to have seen a Supremes Story using the wonderful tunes of Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, although that would have probably cost a fortune in royalties. What I got was a sort of Life of Brian version, in that you know who it was supposed to be about but the story was told through a third person, except not as funny and not as cutting. Admittedly the songs are better in Dreamgirls, but then I always look on the bright side of life!
The story is too complex to detail but revolves round a three member girl group looking for stardom and refusing to compromise, who are subject to a power struggle between two managers, the winner of which rebrands the girls, replacing the lead singer with one who is more ‘photogenic’. He toys with their dreams and emotions but in the end, by fair means or foul, he gets what he wants. Until he eventually also gets his comeuppance.
The book and lyrics are by Tom Eyen and the music by Henry Kreiger, but they miss the Detroit Motown Sound by a mile and, instead of the melodic pop dance tunes, go for the Memphis Stax/Atlantic version of gospel/soul. Again, nothing wrong with that except that, whilst the songs are great in themselves, I found that the construction of the show didn’t support this. There is not a lot of spoken dialogue, most of the ‘conversations’ between the characters are sung, so, whilst they begin by softly serenading each other, the intensity cranks up and they end up screaming into each others’ faces. Not a good way to develop an intimate relationship. The power ballad, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, which ends the first half had the volume at no.12. I am going to the Howard Assembly Room tonight so will be interested to see if I can hear it in there. (later note: Fortunately I couldn’t!)
Nicole Raquel Dennis, who plays Effie White, the original lead singer of the group, and who sang the above mentioned number, has the most incredible voice, how she keeps it going for a performance, let alone a tour, is beyond me. Truly amazing. The other members; Natalie Kassanga, as Deena Jones and Paige Peddie as Lorrell Robinson were superb and evoked the atmosphere of the time very effectively.
There were some men in the cast as well; Jo Servi as Marty, the original manager, and Dom Hartley-Harris as Curtis Taylor Jnr, the second-hand car dealer who takes over, created the necessary amount of tension and also interpreted their songs very effectively. Shem Omari James as the innocent young songwriter who grew up with the girls and was hired to produce their material, had a convincing callowness which matured into cynicism as the show progressed and he was ripped off, his music being mis-used.
The comedy, not too subtle, was provided by Brandon Lee Sears as the James Brown figure, Jimmy Early, who engaged the girls as his backing group but was dumped by the manager when he was considered to be over the hill. His singing and stage antics were more than reminiscent of the Godfather of Soul but again, nothing to do with Motown.
The racial tensions of the time are referred to in passing as is the re-recording of discs originally made by black artists, by clean cut white boys for sale in the mainstream market.
The singing and dancing by all of the cast, whether the main characters or the ensemble, was superb as was the orchestra under the Musical Direction of Simona Budd. The Set Design by Tim Hatley was very inventive with a series of illuminated frames suspended along the middle of the stage from left to right which reflected whether the singers were on stage and performing to we audience members, or, at the back of the set facing away from us, when we were seeing backstage action. The Costume Design by the same creative had the show clothes nailed but the streetwear sometimes looked a bit out of time. The show was Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw who also did a storming job.
Apart from the couple of gripes, sorry but I can’t help myself, as being around when the action was supposed to have been taking place, any error jumps out, I enjoyed the show immensely. So, if you like good music, that sweet soul music, then I suggest you get yourself along to the wonderful Grand Theatre before 9th July and enjoy. Book at https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/dreamgirls/#book
Now that we have established that the group is not The Supremes then I would like to conclude by saying that the manager is not Berry Gordy, he’s a very naughty boy!
All photographs by Matt Crockett and by supplied by Leeds Heritage Theatres.