Now, that was a standing ovation that really meant it. When Friday’s opening-night crowd at Portland Center Stage leapt to its feet at the end of Dreamgirls, there was none of that reluctant “oh, I suppose so” or “it’d be churlish to stay sitting” or “if I don’t stand up I won’t see the curtain call” business. This standing O was heartfelt and spontaneous.
Little wonder. Director Chris Coleman and his cast, drawn mostly from around the country and including several performers with deep Broadway tour experience in Dreamgirls or other shows, had just pulled out the stops and pumped fresh life into this 1981 multiple Tony-winner, which had previously stormed back to popularity in 2006 when its movie adaptation catapulted Jennifer Hudson to stardom.
Center Stage has been making a habit in recent seasons of producing big paeans to musical-theater history (in addition to several new musicals), from Cabaret to Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Sunset Boulevard, a sterling black-cast Oklahoma! and last season’s fine Fiddler on the Roof. From a strictly performance viewpoint, Dreamgirls might just take the cake. It’s a pleasure to see a show with true Broadway sheen performed on the smallish but ample Main Stage at The Armory rather than in the cavernous Civic Auditorium, home to the Broadway Across America touring series. Center Stage’s home space is big enough to capture the energy that a Broadway musical demands, and small enough to make the experience intimate and personal.
Dreamgirls is a backstage musical, and although it’s a pop-music stage, not a theater or burlesque hall or movie one, that old familiar bitch goddess success plays a major uncredited role. The play follows in a tradition that ranges from Show Boat (which Lakewood Theatre produced in an intimate version last season, and Portland Opera will give the full-out treatment later this season) to 42nd Street, A Star Is Born, Gypsy, and A Chorus Line – with one big difference. Unlike Show Boat, which approaches American race issues from the side door, Dreamgirls meets them head-on – or rather, keeps them at a constant simmer, just below the surface of the show-biz melodrama, and occasionally boiling over, so they can’t be ignored.
Dreamgirls is not not not the story of the Supremes – certainly not – and has the minor differences in detail to prove it, but you’ll be forgiven if you plug in names like Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Cindy Birdsong, and Motown boss Berry Gordy. Besides and maybe more important than being a show-biz fictional bio, it’s an investigation into the bumpy integration of American popular culture – and not just what was gained in the process, but also what was lost.
In the hands of Gordy stand-in and calculating impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (a coolly impassioned Rodney Hicks), molding the Dreams is a way to throw open the windows of pop music to black performers and bring them the riches and fame they’ve been denied. He has a plan, and it’s his way or the highway, which is where much of the trouble ensues. The price, in Curtis’s calculation, is smoothing out the wrinkles in black music, making it more appealing and less threatening to crossover audiences. The path is replacing the Ballard stand-in Effie White (a terrific Nattalyee Randall) – a diva in the gutsy gospel/blues/R&B tradition that also spawned Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner – with the luxuriantly smooth pop sounds of Ross stand-in and former backup singer Deena Jones (Mary Patton). The marketplace gains are obvious. In Tom Eyen’s book and Henry Krieger’s score, which necessarily simplify what was a complex process but get the broad strokes right, the artistic losses are clear, too. Something innately cultural, a sense of this being black music created by black artists for black audiences, is lost in the economic and social exhilaration of the crossover: Dreamgirls carries a sense of regret something like that in the 1976 movie comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, about the impending breakup of the old negro baseball leagues as the color barrier falls. (Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s main producers was … crossover king Berry Gordon, for Motown Productions.)
Dreamgirls’ first act, which is essentially the Dreams’ creation myth and concentrates on Effie’s voice and story, is stronger than Act II, which traces the rise of the Motown sound and the group’s eventual breakup. It’s a built-in problem that the predominantly R&B sound of the first act is more interesting than the predominantly pop sound of the second act. That’s counterbalanced by Effie’s return in some key scenes and the continued presence of Jimmy Early (in a puckish and utterly entertaining performance by David Jennings), an untamable and seductively roguish singer with a bit of James Brown in his DNA. Patton’s strong and dignified performance as Deena is key here, too: it’s important to remember that the Supremes were a genuine phenomenon, and Ross was a captivating diva, even if, like me, you find their music more formulaic and less interesting than the more freewheeling and creative music they supplanted.
And this show is solid. It’s tough to find a weak link in the cast. Make that impossible. Lexi Rhodes and Antoinette Comer as the other Dreams, Calvin Scott Roberts as Effie’s brother and Dreams songwriter C.C. (think Smokey Robinson, sort of), and Tyrone Roberson as Jimmy’s more cautious original manager also stand out, as does the singing in general: you could attend this thing strictly as a concert and have a great night out.
The show looks and sounds terrific. The ever-reliable Rick Lewis leads a vibrant and perfectly balanced nine-piece pit band, Kent Zimmerman’s choreography is witty and suggestive of the story’s times, G.W. Mercier’s turntable set lends the action a rhythmic pulse, and Sydney Roberts’ costumes look like a million bucks. I don’t want to know how much they actually cost: it might shatter the illusion.
The real story of the Supremes is sometimes tougher and more tragic than Dreamgirls’ fictionalized – dare I say, smoothed out? – version. In real life, the ousted founding member doesn’t return, as Effie does in Dreamgirls, for a feel-good final concert with the old gang. Florence Ballard, broke and sick after a failed comeback attempt, died of coronary thrombosis in 1976. She was 32. That part of the story doesn’t have crossover appeal.
Still, there’s fact. There’s fiction. And there’s something, like Dreamgirls, in between. Standing O for that.
Right now, Portland’s in the midst of a musical-theater renaissance. La Cage aux Folles is bringing out the laughs and tears in the Newmark. Triangle’s wrapping up a lauded production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, tick … BOOM! Broadway Rose is coming off a pair of summer hits with The Music Man and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Clackamas Rep with a solid Carousel. Lakewood’s in the midst of Young Frankenstein, and gearing up for a November production of the lovely and all too rarely produced She Loves Me. And in the intimate Brunish Theatre above the Newmark and Winngstad theaters, Staged! is delivering an impassioned, don’t-miss-it chamber production of the startlingly fine Jason Robert Brown musical Parade, based on the infamous Leo Frank murder case a century ago. Keep on your toe-tapping shoes, Portland. Looks like you’ll need ’em for a while.
NOTE: This review is possible in part thanks to our partners at Artslandia!