The commercialization of black R&B and soul performers into acts that would attract broader, white audiences -- and the tale of one such group that bears a certain resemblance to the Supremes -- is the core of the Tony Award-winning 1981 musical "Dreamgirls."
"Dreamgirls," which opened Tuesday at the Atwood Concert Hall, spans most of the 1960s and the early 1970s, telling its story almost entirely in song. It begins with three young women who call themselves the Dreamettes, arriving in New York City from Chicago in their homemade dresses to compete in a talent show at Harlem's fabled Apollo Theatre, and ends with the reconfigured trio riding a wave of commercial success and personal trauma into the disco era.
Lead singer/diva Effiie (Charity Dawson) and her friends Deena (Jasmin Richardson) and Lorrell (Mary Searcy) don't win the contest, but they pick up an opportunistic manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Aubrey Poo), and are hired as backup singers for the quirky, energetic R&B singer James "Thunder" Early (Michael Jahlil). As the group's star rises, Curtis molds the trio into a more saleable pop group, changing the name to the Dreams, demoting Effie from lead to backup in favor of the slimmer, more photogenic Deena and eventually ousting Effie altogether, replacing her with another slim young singer, Michelle (Kimberly Michelle Thomas).
Paralleling the singers' professional changes are their tumultuous lives: Curtis spurns the smitten Effie for Deena, Lorrell takes up with the very married Jimmy Early and Effie's songwriting brother C.C. (Terrance Johnson) becomes enamored of Michelle.
Tuesday's opening night audience, which filled the ground floor and scattered seats in the balconies, was obviously heavy with "Dreamgirls" fans, who provided some call-and-response throughout the show -- the occasional enthusiastic "Yes!" or "You go!" as well as "No!" or a soft "Awww." Dance numbers were occasionally complemented by finger-snapping from the house.
The audience's enthusiasm, however, peaked at the Act One finale, the powerhouse, defiant "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," sung by Effie to Curtis, the man who has taken everything away from her. As generally performed, the number teeters dangerously on the edge of the histrionic and requires impressive vocal chops. Fortunately, Dawson has them in abundance and Tuesday's crowd rewarded her.
On the whole, the performers were skillful and their harmonies -- especially the Dreams' -- beautiful. A standout, though, was Jahlil as Jimmy Early, a singer whose R&B soul isn't completely buried beneath the slick stylings that Curtis has foisted on him. When, late in his career, a fading Jimmy rebels against his unwanted commercialization and drops the smooth Johnny Mathis/Tony Bennett style ("I Meant You No Harm") to incite the audience, gyrate on the floor and perform inappropriately with his microphone ("The Rap"), the moment is hilarious and triumphant. Jahlil played and sang it to the hilt.
Although the show is undeniably flashy, with miles of satin, chiffon and sequins being sacrificed to dress the cast, the scenery is surprisingly minimal. A Lucite table and chairs do duty now and then, but the sets consist primarily of sliding panels that become show venues, recording and TV studios and other locations simply through configuration, lighting and projections. The result is evocative and effective.
This minimalism, however, doesn't apply to the sound. The show, like many rock-style musicals ("Rock of Ages," anyone?) is LOUD. Those with aging or sensitive ears could benefit from earplugs. On Tuesday, the sound system occasionally muddied the vocals and the infrequent dialogue; at the opening, the Apollo's M.C. could barely be understood, his words mushy and nearly incomprehensible.
On the whole, however, this touring production, brought to town by the Anchorage Concert Association, is skillfully and enjoyably mounted, with a talented and energetic cast and some numbers that inspire toe-tapping at the least, and maybe a 'Yes!" now and then.
Anchorage playwright Linda Billington, whose work was the most recent production by Blue Roses Theatre in New York, is a former arts editor for the Daily News.
By LINDA BILLINGTON
Anchorage Daily News