Dreamgirls loudly and proudly delivers spectacular vocals, a reminder to let your soul sing and enough sparkle to brighten up the dreariest of days.
This glittering, award-winning musical uses gutsy performances from its stars to neatly depict what marginalised artists with showbiz aspirations dared to dream of in 1960s America. The characters pursue personal happiness, professional success and public recognition of injustices caused by racism and gender inequality.
Friends Effie White, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson are a trio of young black female singers who enter talent shows together as “The Dreamettes”. Music means everything to them so they have high hopes that their distinctive harmonies will bring fame and fortune. Unfortunately, the white-oriented music industry is resistant to R&B and soul – pop reigns supreme.
After arriving late for a performance, the girls attract the attention of Curtis Taylor Jr, a conniving used-car salesman who manipulates events so that he can charm his way into becoming their manager. Curtis is keen to broaden the group’s appeal and ensure “The Dreams” (yes, he renames the act) cross over to the mainstream charts. Will his changes really be the best thing for Effie, Deena and Lorrell though?
The plot (described as a fictional story inspired by the girl groups of the 1960s yet widely believed to be based on the history of Motown superstars The Supremes) is a little predictable. Some of the choreography seems a bit repetitive. And, although there are a lot of songs, the tunes don’t all necessarily lend themselves to being remembered for post-show humming. But listen! I am telling you, Dreamgirls is all about the voices. Who they represent, the way they are used and how they make you feel.
Effie is the soulful lead singer of The Dreamettes. Although she is reluctant to be pushed out of her comfort zone, this diva has a phenomenal amount of talent to showcase. She knows that she is a fuller-figured woman. She knows that she can sing. She has no time for unflattering, uncomfortable outfits or the relentless greed, rivalry and vanity that underpins the entertainment industry.
Effie is sidelined when conventionally beautiful, pop-friendly Deena is chosen to front the new-look group, The Dreams. It is at this point that the emotional rollercoaster really begins. On press night, Sharlene Hector was leading the cast. Hector’s portrayal of a resentful, rejected Effie was so raw and powerful that she made the audience ache for her; we could feel her heart breaking. When Effie yearns for her lost love and lost dreams in the final song of Act One (‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’), she remains her outspoken self even as her voice cracks and she chokes back sobs. Hector earned her pre-interval standing ovation. Tearful but tuneful. Quavering then soaring. Vulnerable yet irrepressible. Her voice is huge and she uses it spectacularly.
In the 2006 film of Dreamgirls (adapted from the original 1981 Broadway musical) Beyoncé played Deena. In this touring production Milton Keynes actress Natalie Kassanga is cast as the unassuming star in the making. Her Deena dazzles, especially when demands for freedom and forgiveness reach a crescendo in Act Two.
While Effie and Deena find themselves pitched against each other, Lorrell, the baby of the group, seems steadfastly satisfied as a backing singer. Lorrell’s character arc has her blossom from an unworldly innocent into a woman who knows what she wants after a long-term affair with married singer Jimmy Early. Paige Peddie is bubbly and likeable as Lorrell, while attention-grabbing Brandon Lee Sears must have springs in the soles of his shoes as livewire Jimmy.
The compromises the characters make, both professionally and personally, are what drive the sung-through narrative and force them – and us – to acknowledge that every individual is deserving of their own dreams. Achieving the shiny goals that you aspire to is worth your effort and you owe it to yourself to go for what you truly want. The message is clear: don’t settle for a lacklustre version of what you have always dreamed of.
Dreamgirls is a triumphant celebration of live music and effortless singing voices. Everything about the show is polished and intended to impress. The male ensemble members in particular strut their stuff through high-octane dance routines with excellent energy and an almost spur-of-the-moment execution that requires pin-sharp precision.
The costumes are nearly as important as the music and everyone looks the part. As the girls climb the charts, their gowns get more glamorous, their heels get higher and their wigs get more elaborate. They sashay in sequins, shimmy in feather boas and embrace extreme hemlines, including fishtail frocks and go-go girl minidresses.
The sets consist of panels and podiums that rotate to provide either an onstage or backstage perspective. These sparkle and shine too. A variety of curtains adorn the stages the characters grace – glitzy gold tinsel, pale pink pleats, folds of lustrous purple fabric – and all sorts of lights are used to dial up the dazzle.
Dreamgirls is simply shamelessly extravagant entertainment, topped off with a flamboyant message of empowerment. All you’ve got to do is dream!
*Production photography by Matt Crockett.
Dreamgirls continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 5 February 2022. The UK tour continues until 31 December 2022.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.