“Looking for something–something that’ll give you a rise? Looking for something like a real nice surprise?” Then look no further than La Mirada California where “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” and McCoy-Rigby Entertainment are presenting the fourth show of their dynamic 2015-2016 season: “Dreamgirls”! Featuring a Tony Award-Winning book by Tom Eyen (who also wrote the lyrics) and music by Henry Krieger, this truly spectacular new staging is Directed and Choreographed by Robert Longbottom, with Musical Direction by Dennis Castellano. On opening night Producer Tom McCoy once again greeted the audience, this time with the advisory that their “eyes WILL pop”’ by what they were about to see—and his prediction is 100% accurate! Eyen’s Tony-Award winning libretto is a rare merging of drama, music and movement such as few musicals have ever achieved; and they all get the gold-medal treatment they so richly deserve in La Mirada’s dazzling high-tech, high talent production.
A tune-filled, tumultuous—sometimes tawdry–but always terrific, tale of bright-lights, big dreams and the high cost of success in the often cutthroat recording industry of the 1960s and 70’s, the story opens back stage at the World famous “Apollo Theater” in Harlem New York. The time is the early 1960’s where, after appearing in a talent show at the famed venue, budding’ African-American “Girl Group”, “The Dream-ettes” (consisting of the brassy “Diva-in-training” lead singer “Effie White”, the strikingly beautiful and statuesque “Deena Jones” and girlish and innocent “Lorrell Robinson”) are ‘discovered’ and signed to a recording contract by ambitious used car salesman turned would-be manager “Curtis Taylor Jr.” Sensing in them greatness (not to mention a potentially profitable opportunity) his aim is to introduce a hot new soulful sound that was entirely new to the American music charts, which up until then was used to a far more ‘white-bread’ (and mostly white-sung) flavor. For starters though, Taylor’s plan is to have the girls sing back-up for the sly and charismatic Super-star, “James ‘Thunder’ Early”. “We’re about to enter the greatest moment of our lives” Effie’s brother (and the group’s primary song writer) “C.C.” (short for “Clarence Conrad” ) tells them. Changing their names to “the Dreams”, as time passes, the trio is subsequently molded into an unstoppable hit machine and propelled into the spotlight—and the top of the music charts—once Taylor edges out the ultra-talented Effie so that the more beautiful (and to ‘middle-America’, ‘acceptable’) Deena can become the lead and “face” of the group. Trouble is, the higher they all soar together, these basically good-hearted and humble girls eventually start to realize that the true cost of fame may be far more expensive and more personally scorching than any of them could ever before have ‘dreamed’ (“None of us wanna deal with each other anymore–you notice that?” C.C. observes the more famous they become.) Act Two picks up at Kennedy Airport as the “Dreams” sans Effie—are now a sensation and embarking on their very first world tour. Deena and Curtis, we also learn are married, while Effie, separated from her friends and brother, is now a single mother, once again struggling to maintain some semblance of her former glory. The ending number, “Hard To Say Goodbye” which segues into a softer, more pensive and conciliatory rendition of “Dream Girls” has the singers once again briefly joining together one last time flanked by an ever-growing back drop of stars, leaving a remarkable and unforgettable impression.
Director Longbottom insightfully takes full advantage of the script’s fluid, progressive aspects in addition to all the impressive technology at his disposal. This allows for an excitingly-paced, vibrant production where the story unfolds fairly quickly, punctuated by plenty of lights, glamour, and mesmerizing movement. Along with Co-Chorographer, Shane Sparks, Longbottom has also infused the production with plenty of jivey and stylish moves throughout—quite often subtly, other times explosively–lending the entire undertakings the perception that all of the action is roaring along to a pulsating omnipresent beat (They even throw in a few bits of “The Funky Chicken” with surprisingly excellent results as well.)
The ‘All African-American’ cast is to-a-performer first-rate, and performances don’t get any more dynamic than the one Moya Angela handily delivers here as “Effie White”. Angela is blessed with the kind of rich, lusty and full-figured voice reminiscent of the likes of Etta James or Nancy Wilson, which this character absolutely requires–and she certainly showcases it wonderfully throughout both acts! Effie’s Act One declaration (and the act’s closer) “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” is nearly beyond words, (but “completely stupendous” might come close!) More than simply mightily delivered though, Angela effectively bathes each note in the palpable emotions of heart-break, desperation and betrayal seething underneath, giving this already strong descant genuine heart-stopping meaning and empathy. Little surprise that at its conclusion opening night, the enthusiastic crowd was immediately brought to its feet in a vigorous (and very well-earned) ovation! After intermission, her sharp and lively execution of “I Am Changing” keeps this vocal momentum airborne (–and her split-second on-stage costume ‘transformation” as Effie goes from ‘auditioning’ the song to performing it upon ‘landing the gig’ is awesome—and boosts the show’s “Wow Factor” up several more notches!) She also pristinely introduces the show’s standout, “One Night Only”, before the (literally) electrifying ‘disco-fied’ reprise led by Jasmin Richardson as “Deena”—complete with a passel of brawny, bare-chested and big-afro coiffed Chorus ‘Bois’! Toward the show’s climax, Ms. Angela’s eleventh hour duet with Ms. Richardson titled “Listen” as the two former friends and band-mates take time to reconcile (–and ‘raise the roof’ while doing it,) is a ‘champion-level’ moment for each of them as performers, the production at large, and very certainly for all those in attendance.
Jasmin Richardson is also the picture of elegance and quiet dignity as “Deena Jones”. In many ways one of the trickiest roles in the entire piece, Ms. Richardson nicely navigates these challenges, rendering the growth and maturity of a wide-eyed, hapless girl who becomes a budding pop-culture phenomenon, then into a confident, self-possessed artist—and ultimately determined woman (and she always sounds terrific while doing it.) Moreover, Brittney Johnson as Lorrell, not only demonstrates that she herself is a bona-fide vocal power-house, but that she also has great comic delivery also. Her second act duet with “Jimmy”, “Ain’t No Party” (as Lorrell, now several years older, wiser, and significantly more world-weary, at last tires of being Jimmy’s long-put-off mistress,) proves a second half high point, showcasing this lady’s brilliant voice and talent to deliver some strong emotions through it. Danielle Truitt also successfully navigates some potentially hazardous territory as the fourth “Dream”, “Michelle Morris”; at first glance relegated to mostly singing back-up on the bigger numbers with a bit of musicalized dialogue here and there, she nonetheless efficaciously–even glowingly–manages to make her time on stage melodic and memorable in all the very best possible ways.
Although it’s the women who primarily take center stage here, the men provide strong reinforcement by way of several influential roles as well. Among them, David LaMarr as “Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early”—and (true to his character’s nickname) what a thunderous voice LaMarr has! In his capable hands, “Jimmy’ is a vivacious mix of “James Brown”, “Jackie Wilson” and “Chuck Berry” with even a few knowing nods to “Little Richard”. Indeed, at times it seems LaMarr is “channeling” the essence of these Superstars, and his contributions to “Fake Your Way To The Top” and “Cadillac Car” invigorate the proceedings early on; “Early” is, after all, a master “R& B” singer and an all-around old-school showman (“Miracles happen all the time in the world of R & B, baby” he informs the guileless Lorrell who’s quickly falling under his spell; when she asks what “R & B” stands for, he replies “Rough and Black!”) Later, when finally singing in front of a largely Caucasian audience in Palm Beach, his efforts to ‘whiten up’ his soulsy hit “I Want You Baby” (which has him fighting all his natural, earthy performing urges,) has it sounding more like an aria than a pop tune. Either way, the result is a great comic highlight! His “Rap” as Early’s career hits a downslide once pop music tastes evolve toward “Disco” is simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching, again evidencing how adept LaMarr is at balancing two such disparate emotions which culminate with Jimmy dropping his pants in a fit of misplaced hubris (“Class is class—Crass is Crass!” Curtis fumes afterward, informing him that their contract is immediately annulled!) As “Curtis Taylor Jr.” the dreamer who makes ‘The Dreams’ happen, Scott A. People is still another bright spot, for the most part opting for a more human and likable would-be manager and music industry power-broker. This is especially significant as it makes the logic regarding why both a relatively ‘novice’ group like the “Dream-ettes” as well as a seasoned pro like Early so willing to follow his lead far more plausible. It also makes his decisive betrayal of Effie with “It’s All Over” that much more biting also. He too has numerous outstanding moments, whether by leading the goings-on in “Steppin’ To The Bad Side”’ or later when he tries to reassure his ‘creation’ Deena in their duet, “You Are My Dream”. He’s not just ‘convincing’, he’s ‘believable’! Laudable support is also furnished by John Devereaux as “C.C.” (“Isn’t music supposed to express what people are feeling?” the frustrated Songwriter queries at one point; “music is supposed to SELL!” Curtis answers.) His very best moments include “We Are A Family” (performed as Effie discovers she’s to be replaced by Deena as the lead singer just as the group is to be launched as their own solo-act) which is about as poignant as musicals get. Shortly thereafter, attempting to make amends with her by promising her his new song called “One Night Only”, their voices blend to the wistful “I Miss You Old Friend”. Brandon Burks as “Wayne” also offers great support during several key moments, like supplying his beefy baritone to ‘anchor’ the group harmony during the initial phrases of “Stepping To The Bad Side”.
Certainly not to be overlooked either are the numerous, incredible technical elements, and it wouldn’t at all be an overstatement to assert that this version of “Dreamgirls” demonstrates an epic merging of performance and technical artistry! William Ivey Long’s breath-taking costumes, perfectly complimented by Joy Marcelle Langley’s equally sumptuous wig designs impressively recall a glossy version of the 60’s and 70’s in the way an unexpected memory can be evoked via a favorite old song on the radio or a vintage TV clip. Right from the start, Long’s funky ‘fish tail’ dresses (worn by the opening girl-group “The Stepp Sisters”) are a geometric wonder–and the costumes just keep getting better, more stunning and more resplendent from there! Speaking of the vibrant opening (which features one ‘knock em dead’ act right after another as the “Dream-ettes” compete for stardom,) thanks to media designer Howard Werner’s virtuosic use of large-screen projections, front stage and back stage seamlessly blend in a flash. In fact, this ground-breaking use of projections opens-up the production incredibly, likewise creating the plausible illusions of a speedy highway road trip and an airport run way, as well as numerous vintage TV ‘appearances” where the action on-stage is cleverly ‘synced’ with what’s ‘seen’ just over-head on-screen. Perhaps its most ingenious incorporation though, is during the big “Stepping To The Bad Side” number where, working in concert with the choreography, it creates an enthralling effect something a-kin to if “Busby Berkeley” had ever met “Don Cornelius”.
This is definitely the stuff of which ‘supreme’ theatrical ‘dreams’ are made of! After previewing on Friday, March 25th, 2016, “Dreamgirls” officially opened on Saturday, March 26th, at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in La Mirada, CA. There it will run through Sunday, April 17th, 2016. Performances for this engagement are at 7:30 pm on Wednesdays & Thursdays; 8:00 pm on Fridays; 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm on Saturdays, with Sunday Matinees at 2: 00 pm. Special “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be held after the curtain calls on Wednesday, March 30th and Wednesday, April 13th. Tickets can be purchased on-line at “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website located at www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling “The La Mirada Theatre Box Office” at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 (Student, Senior, Child and Group discounts are available.) Afterward, the production moves to “The Valley Performing Arts Center” for four additional performances starting Friday May 6th through Sunday, May 8th 2016. Located on the campus of California State University Northridge (CSUN), at 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge, CA., Show-times are set for Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm. Tickets can similarly be obtained by logging onto: ValleyPerformingArtsCenter.org or by calling (818) 677-3000.
Productions Stills By Michael Lamont Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Robert Longbottom & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s Production Of “Dreamgirls” For Making This Story Possible.