Any new production of Dreamgirls has two hurdles from the outset: the duo of beloved previous productions of the show, the original 1981 Broadway outing and Bill Condon's 2006 movie. Both dazzled their way into the memory of viewers, and both produced stars in the she-shall-overcome role of Effie White (Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in the movie). Even though it’s not as dreamy as its predecessors, a new national touring production (which kicks off with a three-week engagement at Harlem, N.Y.’s Apollo Theater) does not tarnish the show’s legacy. And the role of Effie has again produced a new star in the thunderous Moya Angela.
This Dreamgirls moves from the moment you hear the Stepp Sisters open with ”I’m Lookin’ for Something.” The crackling electricity is augmented by the fact that the first scenes are set at the Apollo, where this production itself was staged. From the outset, too, another thing is clear: Angela, serving up her booming Effie, is the star of the show. And that’s despite the fact that the cast’s headliner is supposed to be Syesha Mercado, who was second-runner up during season 7 of American Idol and has been slotted in the role of Diana Ross-like Deena.
Sound familiar? In the 2006 movie, Beyoncé as Deena was ultimately overshadowed by the then-lesser-known Jennifer Hudson. But, really, this is the way you want Dreamgirls to play out: The crux of the show is the battle between the two divas from the Supremes-like ’60s girl group, with Effie eventually prevailing. Effie has got to be better than Deena. But not way better. Deena shouldn’t be as weak as Mercado plays her here. At several points during the production, it almost seems as if the Idol alum’s microphone isn’t working properly. It’s more likely, though, that Mercado is not a particularly strong singer. (She wasn’t even when she was on American Idol.) Even Adrienne Warren, who plays Lorell, the third wheel of the Dreams, outsings her most of the time. Although the show adds a reworked version of Beyoncé’s ”Listen,” a highlight of the movie that was not in the original stage show, it recasts the solo ballad as a duet for both Mercado and Angela.
Overall, the good outweighs the bad here. Chester Gregory is a hilarious, show-stopping vision in his almost queeny version of Jimmy Early, a James Brown-like showman. (Gregory more than makes up for the rest of the show’s other male leads, who totally underperform.) The hundreds of costumes by William Ivey Long are downright beautiful (especially the floral muumuus worn during the ”Dreamgirls” number), and one of the small joys is trying to figure out how the three main actresses change so quickly. (Some of the costume changes take mere seconds on stage.) And the sparse staging — really just five movable light-up floor-to-ceiling panels that are no doubt road-ready for this tour — keeps the focus of this show where it should be: on the performances. And particularly on Angela’s roaring, from-the-gut Effie. B+
(Tickets and tour information: Dreamgirlsonstage.com)