For years the obligatory response on Broadway to divas who deliver (from Ethel Merman to Idina Menzel) has been a standing ovation. Only recently has the West End adopted the practice. What's really rare, though, is a standing ovation in the middle of a show! It happened after Imelda Staunton's "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy, and in Dreamgirls it's happening again in the same theatre, with Amber Riley's roof-raising statement of defiance, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
Riley (one of the regulars on TV's Glee) plays Effie White, the standout singer– both physically and vocally – of the Dreamettes, a 60s all-black girl-trio from Chicago loosely based on The Supremes.
Like Gypsy, Dreamgirls opens at an audition, where the group is spotted by an unscrupulous car salesman-turned-artist's manager called Curtis Taylor (Joe Aaron Reid), whose ruthlessness is the fulcrum on which the narrative pivots. He changes their name to the Dreams, takes Effie as his lover and succeeds in getting them gigs in Miami and Las Vegas.
Pop music, however, is changing, and with a wider public in mind he decides to wean the Dreams off rhythm and blues in favour of a more glamorous, less ethnic approach. First off he fires Effie, offering the spot to her great friend Deena, whom he later marries. It's a career move that takes the group to the top of the charts.
But the well-worn route from rags to riches is not without its detours. It's a road whose familiar signposts point in the direction of failure, disappointment, betrayal, heartache and heartbreak. Yet it all works out in the end. Bad guy Curtis gets his comeuppance when Deena walks out on him, and Effie, having made it on her own, joins the Dreams 12 years later, turning the trio into a quartet for one night only. So much for the plot.
Though it's unlikely that Dreamgirls will ever earn a place in the top echelons of Broadway musicals, what the show has going for it is its glitzy, Vegas-like razzle dazzle and some nifty theatrical sleight-of-hand.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholow, closely following the concept of Michael Bennett's original Broadway staging, relies for pazzaz on a series of revolving lighting towers and several sparkling electrical backdrops reminiscent of glittering department-store facades over Christmas. Take a bow, designer Tim Hatley and lighting wiz Hugh Vanstone.
Apart from the charismatic, crowd-pleasing Riley, there's a powerhouse performance from gyrating Adam J. Bernard as a James Brown-like singer-dancer, with excellent work, too, from Liisi LaFontaine as the conflicted Deena, Tyrone Huntley (what a terrific voice he has!) as Effie's good-natured song-writing brother, and Aaron Reid, appropriately repellent as the unattractive underbelly of the pop industry.
On the debit side, the generic score by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger isn't as good as some of the Supremes' most memorable hits. Even the one show-stopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," brings audiences to their feet less for the quality of the song (it is impossible to hum it melody-wise) than for the raw commitment of Riley's gut-spewing performance.
Disappointing, too, is the treatment of Eyen's book. Underneath its brash, brassy and often over-amplified exterior lurks a poignant story of racial prejudice, cultural assimilation, exploitation, corruption and compromise – issues barely touched on here, yet so trenchantly examined by August Wilson in the superb Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
That said, Nicholaw's energetic staging, which has moments of breathtaking theatrical magic, the costumes by Gregg Barnes and the aforementioned virtuosity of Vanstone's lighting add up to a musical that alludes greatness but definitely has the wow factor.
Why on earth did it take 35 years to reach London?