When Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981, vinyl still reigned, and Billboard’s “Hot Soul Singles” chart featured artists like Rick James, Kool and the Gang and, yes, Diana Ross (her “Endless Love” duet with Lionel Richie). In other words, the two-decade-long story told by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s hit musical leads (almost) right up to the present day. To most people in that 1981 audience, tales of career making radio DJs, “payola,” and the rise of Motown were a part of their past, a familiar feature of the American landscape.
Almost 35 years later, in today’s world of Spotify, Kanye & Kim (and more recently, Empire), the Dreamgirls world seems almost quaintly historical. This is the time, after all, when headlining in Vegas or Miami Beach was a dream gig, and when tastemakers like Berry Gordy, Jr., could singlehandedly shape the pop music world.
But that takes nothing away from the Milwaukee Rep’s knockout production of the groundbreaking musical, which opened this weekend in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. A musical about music history (a thinly veiled retelling of the rise of The Supremes), Dreamgirls is a piece of theater history, as well, a major step forward in the style of Broadway storytelling—one that Milwaukee Rep director Mark Clements excels in.
It explodes with energy from the first moments, the recreation of an early ‘60s “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theatre. With fluid and hairpin-curve transitions, Clements and his stage and light designers (Todd Edward Ivins and Thomas Hase) swirl the action around us. We’re first in the Apollo audience, watching the emcee introduce the acts. Then, a quick set shift places us backstage, behind one set of performers as they do their act, the glare of the stage lights in our eyes. Here, we watch managers ready their singers, negotiate future gigs, calm performers’ nerves and stroke their egos. We move back and forth, audience to backstage, and finally, we’re in the seats to watch the Apollo headliner of the evening, James “Thunder” Early (Cedric Neal), work the crowd (our crowd) like an old pro.
The Dreamettes, the central musical trio of the story (later called The Dreams), don’t win that competition. But they are recruited to sing backup for James Early on an upcoming 10-week tour. And so the story begins: Feuding managers, love affairs, battling egos, and the drive to “cross over”–to reap the rewards of the mainstream music business by breaking down the barrier that has ghettoized black music since Bessie Smith had those Down Hearted Blues. It’s told with breakneck pace and perfect clarity—helped along mightily by Alex Tecoma’s eye-popping period costumes.
If Neal and Nova Y. Payton (as Effie White, one of the Dreamettes who doesn’t quite fit the “crossover” mold) are the standout performers here, it’s to Clements’ credit that this Dreamgirls is ripe with nuanced characters and powerful scenes. As the Berry Gordy-like Curtis Taylor, Jr., Jared Joseph doesn’t simply play the driven tyrant, but shows both brazen ambition and genuine feeling for the singers in his charge (and often in his bed). As the eventual lead singer of The Dreams, Trisha Jeffrey captures the tension between the thrill of solo stardom and the affection for her musical sisters. And Dan’yelle Williamson, as the other Dream (and “Thunder” Early’s longtime mistress) brings the house down with a knockout “marry me or set me free” moment. Nathaniel Stampley’s Marty is a pillar of music-industry integrity. And Richard Crandle, as Effie’s brother and songwriter C.C. White, captures the charged but innocent enthusiasm that adds to the story’s ultimately sentimental spirit.
But Payton and Neal are the standouts here, but not just because they are in the brightest spotlight. In 1981, Frank Rich called Effie’s show-stopping Act One finale, “(And I Am Telling You) I’m Not Going,” the greatest Broadway music moment since Ethel Merman’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in Gypsy. Payton has the power, but she’s no mere Broadway belter. Rather than bring the song to an explosive finale, she turns inward—driving and tempering her personal resolve rather than merely shouting it to the world.
While the James-Brown-like “Thunder” Early is a real audience pleaser, Neal balances his portrayal on a keen edge of slapstick and pathos. His antics with the real Rep audience—bumping and grinding into people along the aisles and even offering a snort of his ever-present cocaine—is charming and hilarious. But in his final scene, he also shows the devastating wounds he is desperate to hide. It’s the perfect embodiment of the great American story of rise and fall, integrity and compromise, art and commerce. Today, it plays out in full view on American Idol and elsewhere. But once upon a time, when the stakes were much higher, it happened in nightclubs and recording studios, in Vegas and Detroit—in a world that The Rep’s Dreamgirls captures with brilliant energy and heart-wrenching soul.