Dreamgirls – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book and Lyrics: Tom Eyen

Music: Henry Krieger

Director: Casey Nicholaw

Originally a Broadway show opening in December 1981, Dreamgirls has enjoyed a long and successful history. But people are probably most familiar with the 2006 movie adaptation starring Eddie Murphy, Beyonce, and Jennifer Hudson. It follows the story of The Dreams: Effie (on press night played by Sharlene Hector), Lorrell (Paige Peddie) and Deena (Natalie Kassanga), three talented young girls who form a band and try to make it in the 1960s music scene.

While the glitz and glamour of that world are in evidence, Dreamgirls does not shy away from its darker realities nor from the pitfalls of fame. The girls’ friendships are pushed to their limits as they experience the ups and downs that the industry has to offer them, but can they hold on to their friendship?

From start to finish this show is a spectacle. It bursts into action with a talent show medley which concisely introduces the key players in turn and briefly explains their motivation within the narrative.

As Jimmy Early, Brandon Lee Sears erupts onto the stage with unbridled manic energy, setting the pace and lifting the whole performance. It is clear throughout that this man is an exploding supernova who is certain to dominate the musical theatre world. With a voice that is like a velvet-covered sledgehammer and an intense physicality: somehow he seems to make Casey Nicholaw’s difficult choreography appear spontaneous. The intense sexual chemistry that he shares with Lorrell (Paige Peddie) sees him steal scene after scene and between them they generate a comic aura that is mesmerising to behold.

Jimmy’s arc within the story runs parallel to that of the girls. He begins as an established, albeit drug-addled and adulterous, soul singer. As the music industry develops a taste for a new sound, we see the girls’ star rise and his own decline. His final number, The Rap, sees him alone, desperately attempting to regain his sound after years of singing someone else’s songs. It is a stark and pitiful contrast from the effervescent character that bounds around in the first act. The chemistry between Sears and the other male leads is tangible, in the song Steppin’ to the Bad Side, a perfect four-part harmony between the male leads builds into an incredible all-male dance number as they decide that the way forward is to use some slightly more underhand tactics to progress the girls’ careers.

The show’s colourful array of characters is framed beautifully within the exquisite set. Cleverly, Tim Hatley’s set is designed to look like the backstage area of a TV studio or theatre and the actors move up and downstage to signify on and off-stage action. Rows of lights on racks flank the stage and they partially obscure the upstage area to give the backstage effect to the action happening downstage. The ensemble performers move in and out of beautiful tableau sequences to silent movement sequences whilst the action unfolds centre stage, and it truly encapsulates the hectic nature of the backstage area within a show. The ensemble dance numbers are stunning to watch, bright, sparkly, and pulsating, they move from scene to scene like a treadmill all the while creating iconic visuals. In particular, the final montage sequence in the reprise of Dreamgirls is spectacular.

On press night, the iconic role of Effie White, arguably the role with the most responsibility in this production due to Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the movie version, was played by Sharlene Hector. Hector commands the stage in every scene, strutting to her own beat with an air of thinly veiled contempt. Her characterisation of Effie is pitch-perfect: funny, strong, and yet delicately insecure she is a joy to watch in every scene.

Effie is at times rude and extremely selfish, traits that eventually lead to her fall from grace. And yet, despite these unattractive qualities, the audience aches for her and wills her to succeed. From the first shiver-inducing note of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, Hector brings down the house with her desperate, emotionally driven offering which she delivers with bone-rattling volume. The devasting emotion of this song is delivered with surgical precision that is sure to enrapture any audience.

This show is a rollercoaster ride through the world of 1960s soul and glitz and glamour come by the bucketful. While it prominently features themes of race and feminism throughout, it offers a message of empowerment that cuts through as we see each of the female leads stand up to the men who have controlled their lives and unite as one powerful unit. A must-see.

Runs until 5 February 2022 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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