35 years in the waiting, Dreamgirls has finally arrived in the West End. Charting the rise of the Dreamettes, (later the Dreams) an American R&B girl group in the 1960s, Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen’s (book & lyrics) story bears more than a passing similarity to the real-life story of The Supremes. The group’s lead singer, Effie (Amber Riley) is relegated to backing vocals to make way for Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) her softer voice and lighter skintone being more palatable to the lucrative white audience the band is chasing.
Much has, and will, be written about Riley’s performance, specifically her vocals, and rightly so. But this is no one-woman show. Director Casey Nicholaw has assembled a supremely (geddit) talented cast showcasing some of our best actors of colour. Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack more than hold their own as the other two Dreams, Joe Aaron Reid oozes charm as the scheming Curtis, and Adam J Bernard delights in the role of Jimmy Early, managing to channel James Brown so well you’d think there was a Ouija board in his dressing room.
But above all this is Effie’s story, and Amber Riley knocks it out of the park with a superhuman vocal. Part musical instrument, part nuclear weapon, it turns on a dime from softly melismatic to soaringly defiant. Her Act One closer, And I Am Telling You, blazes a shockwave into every corner of the auditorium. Simply put, it could not be better sung.
If the rest of the score fails to match the memorable heights of And I Am Telling You, it still manages to conjure up the era with bullseye accuracy. As does the set, a set of lighting towers which evoke all of the show’s setpieces surprisingly well. The costumes are a river of Swarovski-studded splendour. And you could tell the whole story using the wigs alone.
Where the show falls short is in the telling. The storyline is roughly sketched and told too sparely, hurtling through most of the plot without enough breathing room. There’s also little on display in the way of nuance or depth, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. The big draw here is Riley. Dreamgirls is ultimately a testament to the power of the human voice. For all the glitz and glamour on offer, the defining image in the show is a single woman, refusing to go quietly.