By Rachel Korach Howell
Photos by Len Struttmann and Shannon Struttmann
|DiAndre Neville as Jimmy; Cameron Byrd as Marty|
Cedar Rapids – TCR’s Dreamgirls is a musical mimicking the evolution of the Supreme’s: the cutthroat music business, the solid friendships overtaken by lights and glamour, the extra mile and the extra crap the African American musicians had to deal with to get noticed or even be able to take credit for their work, the girls who became strong women… It’s a lot. And it’s alllll in there, folks.
This show is centered around three phenomenal women, but we can’t get by without talking about the men who, circumstantially, ruin or enhance those ladies’ lives. DiAndre Neville works Jimmy. I love to see an actor sweat because I know that actor is working his/her darndest to give the audience everything they’ve got. He moves up and down the space, singing and dancing, in one of the most demanding performances in the show. His energy is unending and his vocals spot on. Marty (Cameron Byrd) brings a lot to the stage. His acting is subtle, strong, and honest, and that man can MOVE. Seeing him let loose during “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” in the first half of the show was a highlight for me. And I couldn’t help but smile when he popped up again in the second half. CC (Tevin Jones) also really surprised me. He is a soothing presence and it’s hard to dislike him even when he’s convinced to prefer Deena (Staisha Federick) over his sister, Effie (Alicia Strong). His singing is beautiful and he is another slick foot in the cast.
The script gives a lot more to the men in the cast, and not nearly as much meat to the ladies it showcases, but each actress’ performance brought out a lot of attitude despite the script’s shortcomings. As the music in this show is it’s backbone (and it packs a wallop) the Dreamettes just take that music and make it their bitch. Each of the three originals in the group are extremely capable singers, and show off their acting chops as well. Lorell (Faith Brooks), one of the youngest in the cast, has a beautiful moment in the second half when she finally chooses herself over her lover. Her voice is stunning, but her ability to let it get a little messy when the emotion takes over really put that number over the top for me. Deena’s “Listen” is simply gorgeous and chock full of honesty. That song is tucked in neatly at the tail end of the show, and the performance not only makes her more three dimensional, but also absolves her, in the audience’s eyes, of her misguided actions towards stardom and away from her friends.
|Staisha Federick, Alicia Strong, Faith Brooks|
Alicia Strong is… An angel? A goddess? Well, whatever she is, she is no less than amazing and a mile more than incredible. Her voice is unlike anything I knew our little corner of the earth had to offer. Her performance is utterly natural, as if she was meant to be Effie, born for that role, the scripted words coming out as if they were her own. She commanded the lyrics and the notes, her voice carrying without pressure and with complete clarity throughout the theatre (seemingly defying any mic difficulties or overpowering by the band). My favorite of her big numbers was “I am Changing.” Wow. She was completely in her element. She preached the notes and fed the collective soul of the audience. It was simple and profound in performance—just her showing us what she could do. It was, for me, the stand-out moment of the entire production.
Opening night brought with it a number of technical difficulties. Mics weren’t on when they were supposed to be or they were very low and the band, though it sounded great, was so loud it was impossible to hear the vocals at times. I ended up missing a lot of the first act’s story progression. Even at the end, the big band’s final send off was so loud, it was borderline painful to experience. I have no doubt, however, that these technical problems will be sorted out during the run.
The staging was also a little difficult. The big numbers were all center stage on a large platform and almost all the storyline was crammed into stage left or right, making sightlines difficult for audience members not sitting on the side the where the current action was happening. I kept wanting the lines between story and song to blur a little more. For example, the big number between Lorell and Jimmy in the second half started with a table and two chairs far stage left, and it couldn’t have been a full minute before those items were struck, as the actors moved center for the bulk of their big number. I wanted that table center and I wanted them to use that table. To stalk each other around it, to reach beyond a barrier, or use it as one in retaliation for the hurtful things done in the past. In general, I felt like many of the duets would have excelled with a little more choreography through tactic shifts. There were a few upstaged moments where I felt like I was missing action as well. When the makeup mirror came out, the actors had to keep their backs to the audience while they fussed with their wigs and discussed their group’s future. I wondered why the mirror wasn’t removed and the make-up table flipped around so we saw their reactions, as through a frame, or at least had the mirror turned to the side to open the ladies up more. I love that dressing room gossip stuff and as a result of the mic difficulties and the upstaging, I missed a lot of it.
|The cast of Dreamgirls|
The production elements are well done. The stage—very open—is essentially a stage-within-a-stage. Certain set pieces are wheeled on and off to aid in plot progression, but the majority of the space was open, allowing for the potential for shifts in story and action. I also love the band on stage. It’s great to see them rip up those tunes, enjoy it immensely, and become a whole new character within the show. Another thing: WIGS. So many wigs! I can’t imagine the work Emily Christofferson and Melissa Gilbert had to put into well over 20 wigs! As a result of that work, all the cast noggins looked appropriate to the time and really nice. And the costumes! There were so many quick changes, Joni Sacket had to be extremely creative with the design. Costumes were often layered one on top of the other to aid in montage-like musical moments the Dreamettes were living, and each had to be specific to a changing style from the 60s to the 70s.
Unfortunately, the script is simply not very strong, and there are so many moments left without the oomph a good story like this deserves. The big reveal of why Effie was so intolerable in the first half is simply glossed over in the second half—one or two sentences without any importance. The reconciliation between Effie and Deena lacks in sincerity and poetry when, for me, it should be momentous. It’s everything the audience has been hoping for, finally coming to fruition and it just doesn’t live up to the promise of that moment. A poor script is a lot to overcome as a performer, but this cast did. Through character work and commitment, their performances were much fuller than the words on the page, and for that I commend the them, and their director, Leslie Charipar.
This show is one you shouldn’t miss. Go and see these actors shine on the stage and let yourself be transformed by the singular Alicia Strong. Dreamgirls runs through February 14. Click here for tickets and more information.