From the moment the curtain rises, Dreamgirls is a riotous explosion. Of colourful costume, of sublime harmonies, of complex choreography. And the audience is immediately transported into the world of the soulful, swinging sixties, where artists attempt to, as the musical so aptly states, fake their way to the top.
The tale is one of a coming-of-age, three talented young black women – The Dreamettes, trying every which way to get their big break. By the climax of the first act, success, fame and fortune have been showered upon the group, but as the cracks in their veneer start to show, we begin to ask: At what price?
Dreamgirls is inevitably a journey, and we are invited onto the rollercoaster with all of the characters. From the crafty Curtis Taylor Jnr. to the intoxicating and infectiously soulful Jimmy Early– we connect with them all in equal measure, from highs to lows, tears of happiness to tears of joy, successes to failures.
But it is the music which enraptures the audience, Tom Eyen’s book providing the perfect backdrop to the story of the black artists transitioning from soul to pop in the competitive market and climbing the charts. And it is brought to life particularly by Liisi LaFontaine as the dreamy-eyed Deena, with her soft image and pop-friendly voice which cause the bold Effie, who kicked off the group’s successes as lead singer, to be sidelined, both in vocals and romantic relationships.
We see the progression of the group from their backing vocals on soul record Cadillac Car – later hijacked by a saccharine sweet white star, as was common with many black-produced records of the day – to their own solo record. The Dreamettes are no longer little girls singing backup for James Brown-esque character Jimmy Early, as third member Lorelle states: they’re The Dreams, they’re women now.
But the standout star of the performance is undeniably Amber Riley, who first rose to fame on the US musical comedy-drama series Glee.
Those who watched the show will know Riley showcased vocals thatwere often unrivalled. But in her West End debut, Riley steps out of the shadow of Glee and transforms into a butterfly, who spreads her wings and refuses to be tied down – much like the character she plays. The Act 1 closer of ‘And I Am Telling You’ cannot be challenged, not by the original Effie – Jennifer Holliday, or indeed Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film version that brought Dreamgirls to the lips of many. Riley’s performance is bold, emotionally-charged and, indeed, tear-jerking, causing the entire audience to rise to their feet in utter devotion as she appears to no longer sing about the man who wronged her, but instead directly to her audience with the command “You’re gonna love me.”
And it was much the same for the entire performance, as Riley finished her year-long run in the production. The glamorous ‘One Night Only’ was juxtaposed with the tender ‘I Am Changing’ in the second act, but in the up-tempo pace of the musical, one thing remained the same: Riley’s vocals, which often switched from over-the-top powerhouse to a cemented strength, were above and beyond all others in the show, earning her a standing ovation in every solo.
By the play’s finish, the audience is totally hooked. The final climax presents female empowerment, where we see the group break away from the clutches of villain manager Curtis Taylor Jnr. to uncontrollable audience applause, before a curtain call which unites all members of the group together in a final farewell.
Dreamgirls was full of glitz, glam and emotional guts from start to end. The incredible original cast who brought the house down, and indeed, up to their feet, have surely carved out their place in musical theatre history.