It’s hard to say goodbye to musical theater as emotionally compelling, humorously spirited, visually appealing and vocally thrilling as the latest national tour of the 1981 Tony Award-winning musical “Dreamgirls,” the terrific season finale of the Victoria Theatre Association’s 2012-13 Premier Health Broadway Series dazzlingly staged by director/choreographer Robert Longbottom at the Schuster Center.
Conceived by Michael Bennett (“A Chorus Line”) and featuring a fantastic score by Henry Kreiger and librettist/lyricist Tom Eyen, “Dreamgirls” is a predominately sung-through, Motown-inspired tale skillfully and breezily chronicling the triumphs and torment of a female R&B trio during the 1960s and 1970s. Loosely based on the tumultuousness associated with Diana Ross and The Supremes, the musical weaves absorbing themes of ambition, disillusionment, greed, image, sacrifice, heartache, love, family and forgiveness into a revealing look at African-Americans desperately pursuing the American dream at any cost during a particularly thorny time when it was very difficult for R&B music to crossover to the pop charts.
Charity Dawson, delivering one of the best performances of the season and blessed with a voice that can be considered an R&B hybrid of Jill Scott and Ledisi, is a marvelous focal point as overbearing, plus-sized diva Effie Melody White. Dawson turns the wonderfully complex Effie into a demanding force to be reckoned with as the lead (and loudest) singer of the Dreamettes who long to become stars but initially settle for singing backup to James Brown-esque showman James “Thunder” Early (the absolutely dynamic JoNathan Michael). When Dawson steps forward near the top of the show to fuel the forceful groove and saucy attitude within “Move (“You’re Steppin’ On My Heart),” there’s no doubt the show is in immensely capable hands. And when Effie’s promising world begins to crack the moment the Dreamettes’ shady manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (a slick, proper and confidently cool Deonte’ Warren) repackages the group as the Dreams and taps slender Deena Jones (the demure yet determined Jasmin Richardson) to sing lead, Dawson astutely escalates Effie’s heartbreak. In fact, the final 30 minutes of Act 1 are not to be missed as the touching “Family” segues into the driving, spine-tingling title tune (beautifully and gracefully led by Robinson) and ultimately reaches a gripping climax with the fabulous squabble “It’s All Over” and Dawson’s powerhouse rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which sparked rapturous applause on opening night long before its iconic final notes. However, I must admit Dawson’s equally visceral “I Am Changing,” featuring one of many stunning costume changes, is a joyously life-affirming Act 2 roof-raiser worth the price of admission. This production, heightened by Longbottom’s superb transitions, also wisely incorporates the soul-bearing ballad “Listen” from the 2006 Academy Award-winning film version, allowing Dawson and Richardson another ample opportunity to showcase their full-throttle vocals within a perfectly honest moment of reconciliation between Effie and Deena.
In addition to the aforementioned Michael’s gospel-tinged vigor in a role he was born to play, excellent featured performances are given by the delightfully spunky
Tonyia Myrie Rue as Lorrell Robinson (the agitated fury within her deliciously fiery rendition of “Ain’t No Party” nearly rises to showstopping proportions), the amiable Terrance Johnson as Effie’s brother C.C., the lovely Kimberly Michelle Thomas as Michelle Morris, and the believably disgruntled Kolby Kindle as Early’s longtime manager Marty whose outright disdain for Curtis is always palpable.
Elsewhere, Shane Sparks, a phenomenal hip-hop choreographer known for his work on “So You Think You Can Dance,” provides sharp and vigorous routines for the male ensemble, particularly the rip-roaring “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” Costumer William Ivey Long is responsible for an array of utterly gorgeous gowns and other colorful period designs. Robin Wagner’s original, understated scenic design is effectively enhanced by Howard Werner’s large, eye-catching LED panels that winningly expand the storytelling. Ken Billington’s splendid lighting design adds just the right amount of razzle dazzle. Conductor Jon Balcourt leads an outstanding orchestra that rarely pauses throughout this rich musical landscape. In fact, a driving rhythm lightly underscores certain Act 1 book scenes.
Thanks to a vibrant cast and striking new technical elements, “Dreamgirls” remains an infectious crowd-pleaser.
“Dreamgirls” continues through June 9 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $40-$86. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com