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Interview with Liisi LaFontaine, Dreamgirls' Deena in the West End premiere
It may have taken 35 years for hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls to open in London's West End but for fans of the show and musical theatre audiences it's been a show worth waiting for. Having already made the transition from stage to screen following a big-budget 2006 adaptation which starred Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé, a new audience has already been created for the musical that's loosely, although not specifically based, on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes and includes a number of pop-theatre hits such as “Listen”, “I am Changing” and “Listen”.
At the heart of the story is Liisi LaFontaine, an American singer-songwriter and musical theatre actress who comes to London having already played the role on the US tour. Despite her experience with the show she still feels overwhelmed at being part of the London premiere.
“It almost doesn't feel like it's happening until you see the response from people and the tweets” she tells me, as we speak round the corner from her new home at the Savoy Theatre where she's in the middle of a intense preview period. “It's amazing, I think it's such a good time for the show to be here, people are responding to it so well – it's making people cry and laugh and have a great time at the theatre which I think is important when the world is as crazy as it is.”
I wonder if the pressures of mounting such an eagerly anticipated new musical are weighing on her mind and if the rehearsal and preview process has all gone as planned. “Honestly everything has been pretty smooth because it's such a dream team” she replies. “Everyone's at the top of their game and so talented. Casey [Nicholaw – the director and choreographer] doesn't waste any time, we ran the first scene in the first two days.”
“Everyone's at the top of their game and so talented"
Nicholaw may hold the claim as one of the hardest working creatives in musical theatre, having already mounted the huge London production of Aladdin already this year, as well as an original musical on Broadway. Liisi is full of admiration for the director and choreographer, commenting as many have before on his enthusiasm and energy in the rehearsal room.
“His energy is contagious and he's happy all the time, so it's really easy to work with him” she smiles. “He loves Dreamgirls – it's his favourite show and the passion that he has for it is really infectious because he's just so happy to be there. He never forgets how crazy and fun it is to be doing theatre, and that's so true. He's always cracking jokes, and to have someone leading the production with that kind of energy is just so great.”
Liisi joins an international cast of musical theatre talent, led by the Glee star Amber Riley in the role of Effie White. I wonder if she feels it's important that this distinctly American story requires that international connection to the material in order to feel authentic.
“I definitely do, I think it would be difficult to do without Americans” she replies. “There's people from everywhere in the cast so it feels like because it's a universal story it's great to have people from all different walks of life telling the same story. When Trump won Sonia [Friedman – Producer] came in and spoke to the cast and just said how important and relevant the story is and how much people all over the world need artistic healing. She spoke about how we can be an example. There's three Americans in the cast and we're all passionate about politics so it's nice for us to feel like we can say something through the show. They made it very clear that the show is bigger than us, if it lasts a long time it's going to be healing to a lot of people who are going to come and see it.”
"I feel like I have a similar tone to Beyoncé so I don't want people to think that I'm copying her."
The role of Deena was famously played by Sheryl Lee Ralph in the original Broadway production and was portrayed on film by Beyoncé. The added pressure of creating such a role was compounded by Liisi's personal attachment to both the musical and the character she plays.
“I first saw it when I was about three, it's always been such a part of my life and the music has felt so close to me” Liisi comments. “My mom is Deena Jones to me – she's the epitome of what Deena is. I haven't watched the movie since I booked it, I'd worry how people were comparing the two. The musical did come first so I look more at Sheryl Lee Ralph and the artists of the 60s and the 70s rather than looking at Beyoncé in the movie. I feel like I have a similar tone to Beyoncé so I don't want people to think that I'm copying her. It is added pressure but I feel people want to see it done well, they're coming with expectations but it is warm – I never feel judged by the audience. It's a fun challenge to bring your own thing to it.”
The challenge of Deena's role in the show is that often she can come across as the 'villain' in the piece, acting as the roadblock that gets in the way of Effie's dreams. Casey and the creative team have gone to great lengths to soften her character and make her more likeable, despite the function her character plays.
“When they put the song 'Listen' in the show and Deena got to really sing it wasn't just about Effie” she explains. “That's Amber and I's favourite part of the show. I love the other songs but they don't have the same feeling. Deena is an unlikeable character so it kind of rounds out our stories and I love singing with Amber – she's incredible. It's a really important moment because it tells the importance of the sisterhood. It's fun but it's also really difficult to sing at the very end of the show. Casey said I want her to feel like a person who got caught up in all this stuff and didn't know how to handle it because she was so young, and once Effie was out of the picture she was just doing what she was told. That's how I've always seen Deena but lots of people see her as a bitch, that she turns really cold and is mean to everyone. I don't think that's the case.”
"I love singing with Amber – she's incredible."
As a group it was vital for them to create believable chemistry. “Casey worked on that a lot so when we come back together at the end people are excited, we're supposed to be together. It's important to identify them as three women who all went through different struggles. It's a really important moment because it tells the importance of the sisterhood.”
The production itself is incredibly slick and fast moving and all three of the Dreamgirls have numerous quick changes throughout as each scene effortlessly blends from one into the other. “It's hard because you have to mentally get yourself into the next scene because so much time is passing” Liisi explains. “Especially in the first act, that's five years. A lot of people don't get that because it's so fast and seamless, we don't have any blackouts to the end. You have to switch your body language and your voice, but you don't have time because people are ripping costumes off, putting new wigs on.”
Greg Barnes' gorgeous costumes even get their own applause from the audience as quick changes are done at lightning speed to keep the action flowing. “The costumes are incredible, the quick changes are crazy but they're so well done” Liisi explains, keen to keep the secrets. “Everything is so glitzy and glamorous, they're all fitted to our bodies to a tee. The quick changes are just really smart, I always have at least ten seconds to breath.”
Having just played over three weeks of previews at the Savoy Theatre Liisi and her fellow cast members have not yet come to terms with the incredible standing ovations and audience reactions throughout the entire show, not just at the curtain call.
“I definitely thought it was going to be a lot more reserved than it has been”, she laughs, “I did not think they'd be so crazy here – in the States the audience would literally talk back to you, there's screams and standing ovations, I never thought that would happen here. On the first preview as the announcer welcomed the audience the scream that we heard was like we were at a Justin Bieber concert – it was crazy! We're all backstage looking at each other like 'oh my god'.”
There's no doubt that West End audiences are getting rowdier and less restrained in showing their enjoyment but Liisi explains that this energy is necessary in order for the show to work.
“The show is so high energy, you really need the audience to bounce off of, you really need them. That energy it makes you want to work harder” she comments. “The standing ovation at the end of Act One happens every night because Amber slays. Casey came backstage and said that that just doesn't happen here, it's special. Sonia said the West End is not ready for the show, audiences don't react like this usually.”
It's certainly a special environment to be making your West End debut and it's clear that this is not lost on Liisi as a performer. “It's great that I feel like I'm doing something that is helping the world, and to be here doing it in the West End is crazy.”
Dreamgirls opens officially at the Savoy Theatre on Wed 14 December 2016.