Dreamgirls – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Book and Lyrics: Tom Eyen

Music: Henry Krieger

Director: Casey Nicholaw

If you’re looking for a dose of glitter among the grey days of December but panto’s not your thing, then maybe give Dreamgirls a go. Originally produced on Broadway in 1981, it won many awards, but it was not to be until 2016 that it graced the West End stage with more award success. And now it’s touring the UK with its bright lights and slick moves.

We meet our protagonists, Effie, Deena and Lorrell as they prepare to take part in an amateur night talent show, singing an original song by Effie’s brother, C.C. Here they encounter several people who are to loom large in their lives, including womaniser and established R & B star James ‘Thunder’ Early and car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr, a hustler with an eye on a quick buck. Curtis understands the girls’ potential and becomes their manager and Effie’s lover. Over time, Curtis takes over Early’s management and guides both Early and the girls – now The Dreams – to a smoother, less frenetic style, one that will appeal to a predominantly white audience. But one decision has major ramifications – Effie is replaced as lead by Deena despite having by far the best voice because it will fit the image better; subsequently, Deena is promoted as some sort of leader. Meanwhile, Early is dissatisfied crooning standards and yearns for his roots. Effie becomes unreliable and is replaced without her knowledge by a new singer who fits Curtis’ dream better. Friends come into conflict, alliances change – this is unlikely to end well.

Underscoring the story is the casual, unthinking racism of a segregated America that pushes Curtis to mould his stars into something they simply aren’t. Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography emphasise how these talented performers have to tie their creative selves in knots to get the break they seek. C.C. continues writing songs, but they are increasingly produced out of recognition to satisfy the audience’s images of The Dreams and Early. There’s also Curtis’ unsavoury pursuit of fame for his stars: he constantly reminds them of the dream – HIS dream – and will let nothing stand in his way, becoming more and more coercive and controlling of Effie and, later, Deena.

At the centre of the show is Effie, played with authenticity by Nicole Raquel Dennis. Dennis is blessed with a barnstorming voice that fills the house, but that also conveys emotion in its soaring notes. The first act closer, And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going after she has been given the devastating news that she’s now surplus to requirements, is full of raw power and emotion and thoroughly deserved the spontaneous standing ovation it received on press night. Matt Mills brings to life the scheming and manipulative Curtis, blinkered by his dream. Mills brings us a Curtis who is so driven that his humanity is suppressed and an inner ugliness is uncovered – although there are hints of vulnerability when he sings of his dream. Another towering performance. Brandon Lee Sears is in fine form as the maverick Early, a showman – wild man – through and through who just wants to do what he does best. The development of his relationship with Lorrell – Paige Peddie – is honestly drawn. Peddie shows us Lorrell’s journey from nervous teen to mature woman who comes to understand what she wants with truth and sincerity. Deena (Natalie Kassanga) finds herself in the eye of the storm, suddenly thrust into a spotlight she never sought and firmly under Curtis’ control. Until, of course, frustration leads her too to turn against him.

The show is slick with musical numbers that segue easily between production numbers and more intimate encounters. Nicholaw’s choreography recreates the times well while Tim Hatley’s deceptively simple set consisting principally of large moveable screens allows the focus to move between locations and times with ease, letting us experience life backstage as well as enjoying the performances.

This is a big show full of big personalities and big voices and should really be on your Christmas list.

Runs Until 31 December 2022

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The Reviews Hub - Central

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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