I always will have a soft spot in my heart for "Dreamgirls." The blockbuster show powered by Motown sound-alike songs was the first big musical I ever saw on Broadway nearly 20 years ago. But even if the show has no sentimental value for you, director Patrick Held's ambitious production currently playing at Dogwood Dell will move you. It captures the energy and spirit of the Broadway original, thanks to robust performances by all the leading players.
The show traces the rise of three naive singing girls from Chicago (strongly reminiscent of the Supremes) who compete in an Apollo Theater talent contest. Their abilities attract ambitious agent Curtis Taylor Jr. (Brian C. Little), who packages them as the Dreams and engineers their climb to show-biz stardom. But Curtis' megalomania eventually pits two Dreams against each another the soulful but volatile Effie (Rhayne) vs. the younger and prettier Deena (Brenda Parker). The rousing resolution delivers appropriate rewards and punishments for all concerned.
The rigors of such a big show complete with classic girl-group choreography, full orchestra and shimmering gowns strains the resources of this admission-free theater. So there are some ragged edges in this production. But I defy you not to get chills when Rhayne throws everything she's got into the first-act finale "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going." Parker's transformation from shy youngster to reluctant leader to screaming diva is convincing and compelling. And Little makes Curtis a wonderfully tragic villain, a decent guy who gets carried away.
Another great thing about this show is that it isn't just about the three leads; it weaves a complex and comprehensive web of relationships that gives even peripheral characters moments to shine. Held has assembled a winning cast that is up to the challenge. "Dreamgirls" ends the Dell's summer season on a soulfully sweet note.
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