When I went: 28 November 2016
Location: Savoy Theatre, London
Performers: Amber Riley (Effie), Ibinabo Jack (Lorrell), Liisi LaFontaine (Deena), Nicholas Bailey (Marty), Adam J Bernard (Jimmy Early), Tyrone Huntley (C.C.), Joe Aaron Reid (Curtis)
Creative team: Casey Nicholaw (director), Sonia Friedman (producer), Tom Eyen (book and lyrics), Henry Krieger (music), Michael Bennett (choreography)
Approximate price: £80
Special points: Powerhouse songs
Best bit: And I Am Telling You / The Rap
If I could change one thing: Less awkward transitions into the songs
I first came across Dreamgirls in the film version, which I saw at the cinema with a very unappreciative audience – I remember most of them groaning every time one of the characters burst into song. I enjoyed most of the music at the time but like that cinema audience, I found the transitions into the songs awkward and forced.
The characters, however, are lovable, especially the women; the idea of a talented woman like Effie being sidelined for not having the right ‘look’, or because a manager prefers someone else’s looks, is a depressingly familiar and believable one. The story also doesn’t shy away from the complications of destructive relationships; Effie and Lorrell don’t stop loving Curtis and Jimmy even when they are treated with a lot less love and respect than they deserve.
The Savoy tends to attract older, more seasoned theatre-goers, so it was nice to see a bigger mix of ages in the audience at this performance. However, some of them on this occasion, young and old, acted like they had never been to the theatre before, thinking it is OK to chat constantly through a show and to literally scream in the middle of a number. Don’t get me wrong, I fully shared their appreciation for Amber Riley’s performance, which was amazing. Her singing is seemingly effortless, she has a beautiful, full, colourful voice, she doesn’t over-sing, she brings plenty of comedy and sass to the role of Effie, and in And I Am Telling You when the audience’s noise started drowning her out, she never stopped acting throughout the whole song. However, I would have liked for the audience to show her their appreciation and give her her well-deserved standing ovation after she had finished, so that everyone could hear her all the way through! Some of the people behind us also thought it was appropriate to loudly comment on the entrances of characters in the second half as well (“ooh that’s the girl that replaced her in the group!”) … sigh.
The other standout number for me was The Rap, performed by Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early (the name Jimmy Early, or James “Thunder” Early, is, incidentally, one of my favourite fictional names). Like Jonathan Bailey in The Schmuel Song in The Last Five Years, he absolutely sold that number from start to finish and managed to make Jimmy, whose treatment of women could make him a pretty unlikeable character, somewhat sympathetic.
I also enjoyed seeing Nicholas Bailey (Dr Trueman from EastEnders!) as Marty and Joe Aaron Reid, who was a vivacious Benny in In the Heights, as the increasingly surly Curtis.
The staging was colourful and sparkly without being OTT (take note, Aladdin) and there were some impressively quick and slick costume changes. Michael Bennett’s choreography and a company of very talented dancers also added a layer of class that was slightly missing from the film version. The transitions into some of the songs are still awkward, but this is the fault of the writing rather than the performers. Most of the songs are interesting enough to patch over this problem, although I would still cut Family (it is less cheesy onstage than in the film version, but I still think “family … like a giant tree” is not a great lyric and sticks out like a sore thumb).
I would definitely recommend this production, which provides tons of fun, warmth and some truly amazing performances.