Los Angeles Theater Review: DREAMGIRLS (La Mirada Theatre & Valley Performing Arts Center)

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by Tony Frankel on March 27, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional,Tours


Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981, won six Tony awards, and ran for nearly four years. Since then, the Michael Bennett musical has been revived, presented in concert, revised, made into a movie, played at high schools, community and regional theaters, and toured. Now at La Mirada Theatre we get a revival of director / choreographer Robert Longbottom’s 2009 tour, which actually began a year earlier in Korea and was revived in another tour in 2013. This incarnation has the same blow-the-roof-off-the-theater performance by Moya Angela, who as Effie nails the best Act I closer since Gypsy‘s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” (This production then heads to Valley Performing Arts Center for one weekend in May before moving off to regions beyond).

Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson, Brittney Johnson and David LaMarr star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS & McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of DREAMGIRLS.

I have seen stage productions across the land since the original with Tony-winner Jennifer Holliday (still the greatest Effie, just as Judy Garland was the best with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Now here’s the kicker: The second act has never fully worked. Ever. I always get fidgety. But I keep coming back.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls is suggested by, but not the actual story of, the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes, America’s premiere girl singing group of the 1960s. It tells the familiar show business story of young performers who struggle to get their first break, rise to the top, and then fragment through internal dissension only to reunite in time for an emotional final number.


A black girl trio — the Dreamettes (Deena, Lorrell and Effie singing songs by Effie’s brother C.C.) — travels wide-eyed and innocent from Chicago to break into show biz at one of the famous Apollo Theatre talent contests in Harlem. The girls catch the eye of an ambitious, conniving manager named Curtis Taylor, Jr., who uses them as backup singers for R&B sensation James “Thunder” Early. He later puts Deena on lead vocals, renames them the Dreams, and guides them to the top of the rhythm and blues market using a combination of payola and chutzpa.

David LaMarr, Scott A. People and John Devereaux (center) star with the company in DREAMGIRLS.

Effie, a heavyset, powerful-voiced diva, becomes Taylor’s mistress until he decides she is too heavy and too loud (and by implication, too black) to fit into the glamorous crossover image he seeks for the Dreams so they can break out of the ghetto of black music into the more remunerative and classy world of pop. So he bounces Effie from the group and she does not go quietly. Effie tries to start her own career and eventually makes it as a star solo singer (a fate unfortunately that didn’t follow her real life counterpart in the Supremes, Florence Ballard, who fell off the show business radar after leaving the trio and died in obscurity at the age of 32). A subplot involves Lorell’s affair with the married Early, who finds himself struggling with the sanitized music he is now forced to sing to achieve wider appeal.

Scott A. People, Jasmin Richardson, Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, David LaMarr and John Devereaux in DREAMGIRLS.

Even though the story is inspired by real people and events, its saga of backstage betrayals and backbiting and the perils of success oozes cliché and soap opera. While well-defined, the principal characters are strangely two-dimensional. The big issue here is that in spite of the huge successes of the young entertainers, managers, writers, and promoters, the discord and conflict among these players is relentless; there simply isn’t much joy in this cynical book. Even the meek Deena, who becomes the greatest Pop Diva alive, has to get away from it all so she can act in the movies. And Effie is temperamental, paranoid, self-centered, and mean-spirited — and we have no idea why this is so.

Brittney Johnson, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt star in DREAMGIRLS.

The score is dominated by rhythm and blues and soul, with garnishes of pop music. The decibel count is high (so high that Dennis Castellano’s smokin’-hot 9-member over-miked orchestra ended up creating feedback competition from the performers’ mics — a shameful travesty from sound designer Julie Ferrin that distracts us from the hard-working cast). Anyone who loves high-octane accessible R&B music will undoubtedly look past the show’s faults. I love a lot of the music, too, and I am consistently electrified by Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations. But as much as Krieger does his best to emulate the Motown sound, his songs “Dreamgirls,” “What Love Can Do,” and “Hard to Say Goodbye” don’t have that magic and always take some air out of the show – and 2 of these tunes are in the second act with a new and equally deflating “Listen” from the film version. (Krieger is also still trying to fix his 1997 musical, Side Show.)

Brittney Johnson, Jasmin Richardson & Danielle Truitt star in DREAMGIRLS.

Bennett knew all of this, disguising the flaws with enormous Plexiglas light towers that glided along the stage below moving lit-up bridges that looked like they could be used to construct an 80-story building. Longbottom brings the same razzle-dazzle but with LED screens that gracefully ice skate on stage or dexterously fly in and out (sets by Robin Wagner, media by Howard Werner, and lights by Ken Billington, who has almost 100 Broadway shows under his belt). Taking the lead from Theoni V. Aldredge’s original design, the great William Ivey Long supplies the magical instantaneous metamorphic costumes. “Dreamgirls,” as Douglas Watt (one of our greatest critics) wrote about the original, “often resembles an outrageous fashion show set to music.”

Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt star in DREAMGIRLS.

Bennett also had at his disposal a star-making performance from each of his leads. Not so here. Aside from Ms. Angela, nobody really blew me away. Don’t get me wrong; everybody moved well and the chorus was packed with distinctive players, so there was plenty of rockin’ and the likability factor was high enough that Act I was, as usual, highly enjoyable. Especially David LaMarr, whose vocals didn’t crackle as Early, but he found a truckload of grounded humor in mannerism and dance. But the tinkered Act II with its hurried and tidy plot resolutions still falls flat, hurt even more by Jasmin Richardson, whose meek Deena unfortunately supplies meek, not sleek, vocals. Once again, I got fidgety toward the end of this highly efficient affair. I like the show, but until someone fixes that second act, I may have to give up on my Dream.

Brittney Johnson, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt (center) star with the company in DREAMGIRLS.

photos by Michael Lamont

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on April 17, 2016
for tickets, call 562.944.9801 or visit La Mirada Theatre
then plays the Valley Performing Arts Center
18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge
May 6-8, 2016
for tickets, call 818.677.3000 or visit VPAC

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Cris Franco March 28, 2016 at 10:16 am

Oh, snap!


John Topping March 28, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Just for the record, the Act I closing song is called “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” not “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”


Tony Frankel March 29, 2016 at 10:32 pm

Caught with my apostrophe down! And I am telling you, John, the change has been made.


Cris Franco March 29, 2016 at 6:22 pm

As I recall, even Michael Bennett (the show’s original director/co-creator) struggled with how to resolve Effie’s story arc. In early drafts, Effie (like Florence Ballard) faded-away into obscurity and was barely present in the second act. But Bennett saw that audiences were as invested in Effie’s story as much (or even more) as they were with the group’s through-line. Hence, Dreamgirls‘ unsteady second act: trying to balance two “A” plots. Personally, I think Act I moves too quickly and Act II too slowly. But the buoyant score never disappoints.


Debra Levine May 7, 2016 at 11:16 am

I enjoyed reading your review, Tony, having seen the show last night at VPAC. Best wishes.


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