Each time the 1981 Tony winning musical Dreamgirls is produced, it brings to the fore yet another diva's story. And our collective pop culture consciousness of her gets folded into the layers of Dreamgirls. In 2010, with a Dreamgirls revival opening in San Francisco, the show carries the personalities of Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson (from the 2006 film adaptation) with it, in addition to Jennifer Holliday (the star of the 81 original) and the ghosts of Motown divas past.
Everybody knows -- or everybody thinks they know -- that the Broadway musical Dreamgirls is about Diana Ross and The Supremes. Anybody who knows a bit about the Supremes can see that the play's Effie White invokes Florence Ballard, the big voiced Supreme who fell by the wayside as Diana Ross's star rose.
The musical's librettist, Tom Eyen, has insisted that he did not write Dreamgirls with The Supremes in mind. But that might have just been his lawyers talking.
If Dreamgirls wasn't the musical theater version of a roman à clef, it would be much less interesting. Yes, this is a musical about big voices, big egos, big divas (fun!), cat fights (super fun!), infidelity (of all stripes), glitter (in truckloads!), and synchronized dance steps. All good stuff.
But the play's extratextuality is what gives it its texture. It should be a prerequisite to know that: Motown's Berry Gordy was sleeping with Diana Ross when he launched her career. And that Diana had his child, unbeknownst to him until years later. Or that Jennifer Holliday (who originated the role of Effie in 1981) quit the workshop again and again until they rewrote the play so Effie didn't get killed off after Act I (although Flo Ballard did die young.) Or that Jennifer Hudson totally should have won Idol but didn't, but she shot to fame anyway. (Snag, Simon.) Or that Diana Ross once hit a flight attendant with her hat box, which was carrying her dog.
Without all the TMZ dish, Dreamgirls is a good enough music industry musical with familiar composite characters whose costumes, hair and musical styles transform from the 1950s through the 1970s. The story follows Effie White (Moya Angela, delivering the goods) as the big, busty diva with a 'tude. She can belt it out like nobody's business, but because of favoritism and the music biz's transformation from an aural art to an audio-visual one, she gets relegated to the back of the band. Syesha Mercado plays Deena Jones, the Diana Ross character (played by Beyoncé in the film.) Like all the characters in this play, her role is utterly underwritten. But we can't really care: the stylized dances (Robert Longbottom from Michael Bennett's original choreography) and eye-catching costumes (William Ivey Long and lots of lamé) assert that this is a play that is exclusively about showmanship.
With Effie gone, the Dreams are now comprised of Mercado's Deena and Adrienne Warren and Margaret Hoffman as Lorrell and Michelle, whose plotlines involve boyfriends who won't leave their wives, if I remember correctly. Chaz Lamar Shepherd plays Curtis Taylor, Jr. the Berry Gordy character and Trevon Davis plays C.C. White, the song writer who Taylor thwarts again and again. Effie goes off to start a solo career that looks and sounds something like Roberta Flack/Aretha Franklin.
While Angela's "And I'm Telling You.." is a powerful show-stopper, it's Chester Gregory as James "Thunder" Early, who wows us throughout the play. Gregory plays Jimmy, a James Brown type, who refuses to tone down his racy act to "break over" to the pop charts. His Gumby-limbed dance moves and raunchy microphone gestures thrill and lift the energetic, but not very memorable songs (Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's genre knockoffs) to suitable heights.
While the movie outperforms this revival, this production underscores the sea change between an era when the music ruled to the modern television age of American Bandstand and Soul Train. Using vintage-style, big-screen projections (media design by Howard Werner) behind the live actors, the contrast betweem the eras comes through loud and clear.
Dreamgirls runs through September 26, 2010 at The Curran Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit shnsf.com.