I imagine most of the audience were disappointed to hear that Amber Riley was off sick and her ‘alternate’ would be covering the lead role of Effie White. There was an audible silence when Marisha Wallace made her first entrance onto the Savoy Theatre stage, pausing for the applause that most probably greeted Amber Riley on a usual night. But by the end of the first Act Wallace had turned the tables completely, bringing the entire audience to their feet with her show-stopping rendition of ‘I’m Telling You.’ It was an astonishing vocal performance that emerged from a deeply felt place.
But this fire-cracker of a show is not just a one star turn. Tom Eyen (Book and Lyrics) and Henry Kreiger’s (Music) show made its Broadway debut in 1981 but surprisingly never transferred to London. So many people will be more familiar with hit film of Dreamgirls (2006), starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx.
The story follows the fictional Detroit girl band rising to fame in the 1960’s and 70’s at the heart the evolution of American R&B music. It’s a fascinating period of change musically and culturally – as music of black origin was making its way from what had previously been called the ‘race charts’ into the mainstream. Bearing in mind that enforced segregation only ended in the USA in 1964, music really was at the heart of this change.
Yet it doesn’t feel in any way like a period piece, every character is richly drawn, with performances so fresh and feisty, relationship troubles so vivid they could be happening now. Effie feels deeply betrayed as her childhood friend Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) takes lead vocals in the band, later Deena faces her controlling husband and maanger Curtis (Joe Aaron Reid) and Lorrell (Ibinabo Jack) finally has enough of being Jimmy Early’s (Adam J. Bernard) ‘other woman’. These dynamics give rise to the greatest arguments (sung of course) I have ever seen on stage.
Casey Nicholaw as a director/choreographer has whipped up a deliciously tight show which dances breathlessly through the decades and the twenty seven songs without a dip in energy or drop in precision. An incredible feat in itself.
About half way through the second half, as disco took hold, I wondered if I my appetite for belting numbers, sequins and crystals was sated. Was it possible to have too much of a good thing? But by curtain-call, I had no doubt that this exhilarating ride was one of a kind, with performers giving every ounce of themselves, and I’d jump at the chance to go back and watch it all again. And again. I’m pretty confident the rest of the audience agreed.
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