It may have taken 35 years to reach the West End but there's no denying that Dreamgirls has certainly been worth the wait, exploding onto the Savoy stage with an unbridled megawatt energy that can be felt across London. Frank Rich's original New York Times review described the show as a defining moment of Broadway history, commenting that a “seismic emotional jolt” had been felt by the entire audience. There is no doubt that this same jolt is currently being felt multiple times per performance thanks to a knock-out cast, tight band and swift direction that makes this an undeniable musical theatre phenomenon.
Loosely based on the aspirations and rise of American R&B acts such as The Supremes and The Shirelles, Tom Eyen's efficient book is set to a mostly sung-through score by Henry Krieger that blends performance music with character-driven songs. Primarily a commentary on the music industry, its links to real-life artists and acts and undeniable yet its historic relevance remains contextual and the characters themselves and their relationships within the industry are as compelling as the mirror it throws up on the machine. Tensions in the book, specifically regarding the leading characters relate back to the show's development history, and whilst the second act lacks the dramatic tension of the first it remains a show that continues to regenerate its own sparkle time and again.
Michael Bennett's original concept of making the stage show feel like a film, barely pausing for the audience to applaud or draw breath has been recreated here by director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw who stages the show in one giant sweep that continues to build momentum from the first notes to the final curtain. The work from both cast and crew appears effortless as the audience are taken on a journey that's told in such a clean and precise way that there is little time to question the frequent holes in both character and plot. Whilst Nicholaw certainly hasn't reinvented the wheel there's little need to mess with a concept that fully justifies its delivery and feels just as contemporary decades later.
The physical production is a visual treat that continues to induce gasps from the audience without relying on trickery, illusion or gigantic set pieces. From Greg Barnes' stunning costume design that places quick changes into a new realm of coup de théâtre to Tim Hatley's simple yet highly effective set design that sees towers of lights glide into positions to create clear and defined physical spaces, it's constantly stunning to watch. As a production it makes the audience work, and the narrative is all the better for it. Not once do you sit back and relax, it remains in constant, effortless motion breezing between different states, dates and times in the blink of an eye.
Amber Riley, like Jennifer Holliday before her, gives a performance of a lifetime that's unlikely to be bettered by any other modern performer in the role. Not only is her voice supple and expansive, delivering the necessary vocal gymnastics in Harry Krieger's powerful and driving score but her acting is first rate, capturing both the joy and pain of Effie whilst never over indulging. There's a raw honesty in her performance that fights against the material and raises her character above that of a belting machine, sharing her emotion solidly with the audience and fellow cast.
Far from a one-woman show Riley is matched with thrilling support from a universally strong company from Liisi LaFontaine as Deena and Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell, each finding the idiosyncrasies in their characters which results in defined and well-judged performances that never go overshadowed. Re-purposed material from the film results in a more comfortable narrative arch for Deena, with the song “Listen” now landing as an incredible eleven o'clock duet, reconciling their relationship and effectively building to the climax of the group's reunion that now feels necessary rather than arbitrary.
Joe Aaron Reid is an exceptional standout as Curtis Taylor Jr., the puppet master behind the group's journey to fame. His enigmatic stage presence combined with powerful vocal delivery helps drive their story and justifies their ongoing motion, matched by a memorable turn by Adam J Bernard as fellow musician Jimmy and a sympathetically powerful Tyrone Huntley as C.C White.
Dreamgirls may be the oldest new musical on the block and it's one that arrives with an automatic fan base yet it fully lives up to, and in many cases exceeds expectations. An electric megawatt of a musical and a sure fire West End hit, it's much more that a “One Night Only” event; this is a show that commands multiple visits to fall in love with it over and over again.
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What the Press Said...
"Dreamgirls is a musical full of sparkle. It's less about the grit and sweat of the struggle to the top, more a fantastically entertaining ride on the showbiz rollercoaster."
Lyndsey Winship for The Guardian
"A show with tremendous gusto of soul and gaiety of spirit."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The show is not quite wide or deep enough dramatically, in my view, to qualify as a great musical but this (ahem) supremely confident production provides, to be sure, a great night out."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw's zestful, spectacularly entertaining and at times overwhelmingly stirring production is irresistible."
Demetrious Matheou for The Hollywood Reporter