When Jennifer Hudson took on the role of Effie in Dreamgirls the 2006 film version of the original 1981 Broadway show, I thought no one could top her scene stealing performance. But, I was wrong, and it’s not just Hudson’s performance. This new production of Dreamgirls at London’s Savoy Theatre on West End, kinda blows the film version out of the water.
The Savoy Theatre although one of the West End’s more prestigious theatres, is quite intimate with its 1,158 capacity. With very good seats, looking at the stage close up, and the simple set of stacked automated stage lights and nothing else, I was wondering if this was going to be a production on a budget. But, nope, this production by Henry Kreiger (Composer), Casey Nicholaw (Director & Choreographer) based on the original story and lyrics by Tom Eyen is so well put together, from the amazing backdrops and set changes, to the thrilling songs and wonderful performances from a stellar cast.
Maybe it’s the thrill of being at the theatre. Maybe it’s because the choreography is impeccable and the anticipated well known songs, but the moment the lights went up, and we’re taken to the talent show which introduces the Dreamettes, I didn’t care that I knew this story back to front… it was like seeing the Dreamgirls for the first time.
The production follows the original tale set in the 60s, about three girls from Chicago who have formed girl group The Dreams – Effie White (Amber Riley), Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine) and Lorrell Robinson (Ibinabo Jack – who was replaced by understudy Jocasta Almgill for this performance) the naive girls lead by a headstrong Effie take part in a talent show which they lose. But enter slickster Curtis Taylor Jr. (Joe Aaron Reid) who convinces Effie to let him take over as manager, and gets them an exclusive gig as backup singers – now renamed The Dreamettes to popular R&B singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Adam J. Bernard). Not forgetting C.C. White (Tyrone Huntley), Effie’s younger brother who writes their songs also comes along for the ride.
Then it’s the obvious fallout, the girls outgrow Jimmy Early, who falls foul of sounding too R&B, and having his music ripped off by cookie-cutter white pop groups. Effie who is dating Curtis starts falling behind in performances because she’s ‘unwell’ and in her absence Deena Jones is maneuvered to take over Effie as lead singer, which suits Curtis’ agenda and libido. Eventually Effie is kicked out, Deena becomes lead, The Dreamettes, become Deena Jones and The Dreams. Deena also marries Curtis. Effie discovers her illness was actually pregnancy and is taken on her journey of self-discovery as a mother and a solo artist. Everyone experiences the highs and lows of the music industry, the loss of friendship and love.
So, with the story not being anything we don’t know. With a few new songs, and to my disappointment the missing, Love You I Do which Jennifer Hudson’s Effie sings about her love of Jamie Foxx’s, Curtis in the film, it is the mind-blowing performances which keep you from caring about knowing what comes next.
When former Glee star Amber Riley makes her first appearance on the stage, the audience applauded immediately. She hadn’t even sung yet. But it wasn’t long before she blessed us, and even though I watched Glee and enjoyed Ms. Riley for her talent and for being the mold-breaking lead actress that she was in the series, I’m so glad she’s off television and on stage. I’m not old enough to have seen the original Broadway version of Dreamgirls which starred legendary actresses Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones, Jennifer Holliday as Effie White, Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson, but and especially since, Hudson’s Oscar winning performance, there are enough clips on YouTube of Jennifer Holliday performing the classic, I Am Telling You to compare the three.
I assume that it’s every black female musical theatre actresses’ dream to get to play Effie White in order to get their chance to deliver their version of one of the most heart wrenching love songs ever written. The buildup to getting to the song, then getting Riley’s pitch perfect, extremely emotional delivery is worth every minute of wait. Riley’s version is more Jennifer Holliday’s growling than Jennifer Hudson’s note-smooth delivery. But she deserves her own space in history. Brilliant. It’s not just her singing either. Riley’s acting and full embodiment of Effie White is perfection; she’s quirky, funny, no nonsense and for her alone it’s worth a ticket. I must make note that as I Am Telling You closes out the 1st act, during the interval the queues to the bar, to the restroom; and among the people just stretching their legs almost everyone was dabbing at their eyes. Riley made us cry people! Her performance instigating the first of two of the show’s standing ovations.
The rest of the cast though, in the presence of Riley’s greatness, do not struggle for attention. LaFontaine’s Deena Jones is well acted. Her voice on Listen, Deena’s final push to leave Curtis and his manipulating ways is beautiful. They changed the lyrics from the film version Beyoncé made a hit, it was also a two-hander with Riley serving as a reunion between the two friends who had been estranged for 7 years. It was a touching moment which had everyone in tears, yet again. Jocasta Almgill’s Lorrell Robinson did very well as understudy. Her performance testament to the depth of talent on this show, if I didn’t see a note saying she was replacing Ibinabo Jack, I would have definitely overlooked Jack’s absence. Saying that, I’m keen to go again and see what Jack’s performance will bring.
Joe Aaron Reid did well as Curtis. Competent voice and good actor, I did however feel there was a little bit of an edge missing, maybe I was unfairly thinking of Jamie Foxx who nailed his version. Tyrone Huntley’s C.C. also well-acted and performed. But out of the leading men, all the praise must go to Adam J. Bernard. Wow! With massive shoes to fill. Eddie Murphy was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal as the flamboyant and troubled R&B star Jimmy Early, and as Riley made me forget Hudson. Bernard had me saying Eddie who? From acting to dancing to singing… Bernard’s Jimmy Early was almost scene stealing, which is damn hard in a company such as this. His energy and comedic timing. Just amazing.
Dreamgirls is a must see. You will laugh, you will cry, you’ll mmm-hmm and go girl when retribution is made! For the energy, the story, the songs the cast and their performances.
This is hands down one of the best productions on West End right now.
To book tickets for Dreamgirls go to the Savoy Theatre website