Inspired by world-renowned Motown records and girl groups like The Marvelettes and The Shirelles – though most have concluded that the story is eerily similar to that of Diana Ross and the Supremes – Dreamgirls first opened on Broadway over forty years ago. It has since become an Oscar-nominated film, been performed in the West End, and now, for the first time, the Dreams are embarking on a UK tour.
We meet feisty Effie White and her meeker friends, Deena and Lorrell at a talent show. They come away with a ten week contract to be backing singers for the eerily Elvis-ish Jimmy Early (a lithe and electric Brandon Lee Sears). Eventually, the women get a break of their own thanks to boisterous upstart agent, Curtis Taylor Jr (Dom Hartley-Harris) but in a quest to make them more commercial, Effie is side-lined on lead vocals by the more conventionally attractive Deena (Natalie Kassanga). Jealousy worms its way into the hearts of the Dreamgirls – and they never quite recover.
This is a whirlwind of a stage show, with the story moving at a breakneck pace. Much of it is delivered via not always perfectly enunciated lyrics so if you’re not familiar with the show, it can be hard to keep up. The cast plunge into the rollercoaster ride with vigour accompanied by some swish, swinging sixties choreography. There are a few cracking songs: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is performed here with incredible brio by Nicole Raquel Dennis. However, there are many more moderately samey songs, thankfully though the live band attacks them all with a sultry brass insouciance that makes for a fun and funky two and a bit hours.
It’s tricky, amidst an energetic ensemble piece, for many of the characters to stand out but some succeed. Snake-hipped Jimmy Early is endearing despite his self-admiration. Kassanga and Paige Peddie as Deena and Lorrell deliver some nicely controlled vocal harmonies with the boisterous Effie. And all are aided by Tim Hatley’s versatile set and an array of sequins and psychedelic costumes that transport you back in time.
This jump also shines a light on the less savoury aspects of the time and some moments pack a significant punch. An early hit for Jimmy Early only skyrockets through the charts when blandly rendered by a white singer. When Effie closes the first act with “The Song”, she might be addressing the upstart agent whose head was recently turned but her passion and fire are equally focused on the establishment that continues to fail to make space.
On one level, Dreamgirls is a story of three hopefuls who found their way to something like stardom. And on another, it’s a fascinating – and coruscating – commentary on endemic societal issues that still aren’t fixed today. Whether you’re after froth or something with a steely determined spine, the Dreams are unlikely to disappoint.