Dreamgirls – review
Savoy Theatre

Words by: Mike Scott-Harding | Published: Thursday, December 22, 2016 12:48 PM
Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg

The casting of Glee’s Amber Riley in the pivotal ‘Effie White’ role is a huge coup; her flawlessly soulful singing voice constantly raises the stakes emotionally, while her superb comedic timing allows her to convey her feelings with a mere glance.


With the internet now making the acquisition and dissemination of information almost immediate, it’s amazing to think that – just a short time ago - one had to wait weeks, months, or even years for any cultural news to filter through from The States; so it was with ‘Dreamgirls’.


First performed on Broadway in 1981 – and based loosely on the tale of Diana Ross and The Supremes – this highly successful show depicted African-American performers striving against racial inequalities, gender biases, and rabid self-interest during the ‘60s and ‘70s; thus, becoming a near-mythical word-of-mouth phenomenon in the process. In London during the ‘80s/early ‘90s, it seemed as if everyone ‘knew someone’ who ‘had a friend’ whose ‘second-cousin had seen the show’.


The worldwide success of the 2006 movie adaptation - starring Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson – further whetted the UK appetite. Indeed, even the success of 2015’s West End show ‘Motown the Musical’ [read our review] – with its own version of the Ross myth - did nothing to quell anticipation for a West End outing.


And so, finally in 2016 – after much rumour and fanfare – London gets to see a staged version of ‘Dreamgirls’ [see listing]; the results are mainly positive.


This tale of rags-to-riches (and beyond) is as well documented as it is simplistic: three girls - and a songwriting brother - travel from Chicago to Harlem, New York, to attend a talent contest, where they are spotted and signed up. Ultimately, they achieve success, but not before becoming embroiled in the murkier side of the music business, where emotions are manipulated, friendships are tested, and feelings are disregarded.


The casting of Glee’s Amber Riley in the pivotal ‘Effie White’ role is a huge coup; her flawlessly soulful singing voice constantly raises the stakes emotionally, while her superb comedic timing allows her to convey her feelings with a mere glance.


(l-r) Amber Riley, Tyrone Huntley, Liisi LaFontaine, Ibinabo Jack in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg (l-r) Amber Riley, Tyrone Huntley, Liisi LaFontaine, Ibinabo Jack in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg

Tyrone Huntley, as her songwriting brother ‘C.C. White’ is also superb. In terms of pure acting, his performance stands out; added to which, his vocal delivery is always polished and emotional - often despite some of the material.


Other performances worthy of mention are Liisi LaFontaine (‘Deena Jones’), and Adam J. Bernard (‘Jimmy Early’). While both sing well, the former transitions superbly from ingénue to seasoned performer before our eyes, and the latter combines an athletic, comedic turn with genuine pathos.


The set uses several rows of moveable, semi-revolving lights, allowing the actors/performers to move through time, space, and perspective. Coupled with cute stage direction, this enables us to see a performer singing while almost simultaneously witnessing the backstage shenanigans – as the performers ‘revolve’ around to face the back wall. Other pieces of set employed to good effect – including moveable podiums, furniture, lighting, and a huge scaffolding apparatus - this work. However, with the amount of ‘business’ going on – not to mention the show’s intense movement and choreography – I question whether Savoy Theatre is the ideal place for this production. I feel that a larger theatre would have been a better fit, as the set seems often hemmed in.


Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre - Credit Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Musical stand outs include “Fake your way to the top”, the ubiquitous “And I’m telling you I’m not going”, “One night only”, and the duet “Listen” (despite its clumsily retrofitted lyrics).


Once again, the audience for a major stage production depicting black lives was woefully under-represented by that particular demographic, so nothing new there.


Also, I’m not sure how I feel, having witnessed a particular song - a pivotal moment in a character’s emotional journey - impacted thrice (mid-song and mid-note) by the audience’s hysterical ‘Pop concert’ reaction.


On the one hand, it’s a testament to Miss Riley’s superb performance of the song; on the other hand, it’s an indication of just how primed audiences are to – not just share in the magic – but to contribute.


And before it’s suggested that I stay in my church, and let others act in any way they choose in theirs, I would contend that there are other lesser-known moments just as worthy of the audience rising as one, whooping and hollering in unison, and obscuring the vocal performances.


Still, if it makes people go and see this very strong production, then all’s well. Chances are, “…you, and you, and you”… you’re gonna love it.


Info: Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre and taking bookings until October 2017.




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