It’s big, brash and glittery, and it comes at you with the force of a mirrorball shot from a cannon. Resistance to this exuberant musical is gloriously futile. Thirty-five years after it opened on Broadway, and a decade since the movie version starring Beyoncé, it proves itself, in terms of sheer enjoyment, emphatically worth the wait. Inspired by the careers of African American recording artists of the 1960s, above all the Supremes, it’s a cavalcade of catchy tunes, slick dance moves and sequined costumes. In truth – despite a simmering underlying narrative about creative compromise, corrosive avarice in the music industry, and white commercial manipulation and appropriation of black talent – the show, with music by Henry Krieger and a book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, is barely more substantial than a mico-miniskirt. But Casey Nicholaw’s production and choreography are irresistibly uplifting, and the performances are so staggeringly good that they bring the audience to its feet.
Undisputed queen of the entire spectacle is Amber Riley of TV’s Glee, who here plays Effie White, the voluptuous diva of the Dreams – a three-strong girl group from Chicago, clawing and shimmying their way to the top. Riley’s voice is nothing short of phenomenal, from its sexy growl to its howling rage and pain, and its passionate, sublimely soaring higher end. She makes delivering a sound that thrills and wrenches the heart look utterly effortless, while at the same time pouring every ounce of herself into each glowing note. She’s awe-inspiring, whether she’s dazzling with the girls, flinging a snarling tantrum, in "Heavy," over her replacement as lead singer by the more lissome, TV- and pop chart-friendly Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine), or making melodious gorgeousness of the dance-floor anthem "One Night Only." But her big moment is, of course, the overwhelming act-one closing number, "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going," as she confronts the Dreams’ smooth, sharp manager – and her lover – Curtis Taylor Jr (Joe Aaron Reid) about his decision to oust her from his affections, and from the group. Her gutsy, shattering rendition is frankly a privilege to witness.
LaFontaine, too, is joyous, sweet but tough, intelligent and sophisticated. And Tyrone Huntley as CC, Effie’s composer brother, builds on a growing reputation as one of the UK’s most exciting musical-theatre talents, with a natural, easy charisma and a graceful precision of movement to go with his stunning vocals. Adam J Bernard, too, is excellent as Jimmy "Thunder" Early – like a proto James Brown with a dash of Prince, and an ego as big as his talent. Tim Hatley’s sets and Gregg Barnes’ glamorous costumes efficiently set the scene and the period, supporting choreography by Nicholaw that whisks us through the Swinging 60s to the disco fever of the 70s. Beneath all the glitz, the characters are flimsily written, and it’s the shame that the writers so rarely allow the narrative’s politics to venture anywhere close to centre stage. But this, beyond all doubt, is triumphant and exhilarating entertainment.