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See Short North Stage’s Exciting, Vibrant Dreamgirls Through November 25

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford See Short North Stage’s Exciting, Vibrant Dreamgirls Through November 25Patrick Carmichael as dancer, left to right, backs up Amber Knicole, Lisa Glover and Kat Lee as The Dreams with dancers Kevin Ferguson in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Adam Zeek.
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For almost as long as people have mounted performances, they’ve made art about making performances. In the world of musical theatre, no one got that down better than director and choreographer Michael Bennett. Bennett added a level of emotional reality to big-number razzle-dazzle that set the bar even today.  Following last season’s A Chorus Line, last weekend Short North Stage opened a swing-for-the-fences production of Bennett’s other masterpiece, Dreamgirls, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Harry Krieger. Director Edward Carignan attacks this beautiful show with the gusto and love it deserves. And he delivers, despite a few stumbles, a triumph.

Amber Knicole as Effie White in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo Credit: Adam Zeek.

Amber Knicole as Effie White in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

Dreamgirls follows a fictionalized version of (principally) the Supremes, The Dreams, from the early ’60s through the mid ’70s. These three friends from Chicago, Effie White (Amber Knicole), Deena Jones (Lisa Glover), and Lorrell Robinson (Kat Lee), and their songwriter C. C. White (Chaz Coffin), find a taste of stardom at the Apollo. They fall under the wing of ascending soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Earley Dean) as his backing singers. They, with Jimmy and as their own act, get caught between forces that want to cross over to a pop market, embodied by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Xzantiny Grant), and those content to plow the same R&B fields, Marty (Ron Jenkins).

At its heart, Dreamgirls is about the tension to be true to oneself and make concessions based on opportunity. How far can someone go until they don’t recognize themselves anymore? As with the real Supremes, the lead singer with the huge, pick-it-out-from-miles-away voice, Knicole’s Effie, gets replaced with someone with a lighter, sweeter voice and more “marketable to mainstream America” image, Glover’s Deena.

The show gives Effie a redemption arc, closer to post-Ike Tina Turner than Florence Ballard. More importantly, it gives her one of the greatest heartbreak ballads of the American stage, “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” If non-Broadway nerds know this show, it’s for that song. And Amber Knicole gives us a version for the ages. If that show stopper’s not enough, she soars throughout – her nuanced, bluesy take on “One Night Only,” and her fragile “I Am Changing” are highlights, and she shows the progression of her character from the first song on so we feel the singer’s evolution.

Lisa Glover as Deena Jones, left to right, sings backup with Amber Knicole as Effie White and Kat Lee as Lorell Robinson with Early Dean as Jimmy “Thunder” Early in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

Dreamgirls by Short North Stage.

Lisa Glover as Deena Jones, left to right, sings backup with Amber Knicole as Effie White and Kat Lee as Lorell Robinson with Early Dean as Jimmy “Thunder” Early in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

Lisa Glover’s remarkable Deena understands the heart of that character. Not a villain but not overlooking opportunity just because of who it hurts. Her leads on “Press Conference” and “I’m Somebody,” plus the disco “One Night Only” manifest a subtle sizzle; a yin to Effie’s yang that sells that producers would want to produce her and writers would trip over each other to write for her. Kat Lee’s Lorrell is delightful and heartbreaking through her falling in and out of love with Jimmy and her voice elevates everything she appears on.

Earley Dean knows what Jimmy came for: damn near steal the show again and again. He wraps the character’s swaggering, workaholic tendencies (half Ray Charles and half James Brown) and his real empathy for people and self-awareness in one contradictory, charismatic package. Dean explodes, making his own one of the best representations of that supernova where calculation and raw talent coalesce. Xzantiny Grant’s Curtis is a perfect combination of shadow and sweetness; a quintessential ruthless manager, right most of the time, and the man the two female leads fight over. Coffin’s CC White brings a needed exuberance to his wide-eyed by no less ambitious writer.

Dreamgirls by Short North Stage.

Amber Knicole as Effie White, left to right, hears pleas to perform from Kat Lee as Lorrell Robinson, Early Dean as Jimmy Early, Chaz Coffin as C.C. White and Lisa Glover as Deena Jones singing “Family” in the Short North Stage production of “Dreamgirls.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

These voices together, with the other leads, are spellbinding and everything’s augmented by a crackerjack ensemble with particularly good work from Patrick Carmichael, Kevin Ferguson, Givi Garcia, and Ayla Mendenhall. Carignan and his stellar cast understand how much the joy of harmony singing is key to this show. Even as they plumb the depths of what humans do to one another, voices in concert with one another are a reminder of what we can all strive for.

Carignan and the cast also grasp the limits of language. He treats every moment like a breathing universe of its own even as it resonates within other scenes and calls back to what we already know or foreshadows what we don’t yet. The choreography on the Thursday preview had a few moments where more rehearsal could have helped but the overall effect dazzled.

Jason Bolen’s remarkable set does a great job as the glittering backdrop for these characters’ dreams and a gilded cage for the lies they tell one another and themselves. The seven-piece band, led by Marcus Davis, was more than up to the challenge of the Harold Wheeler orchestrations but there was a dynamics piece missing; the biggest issue with the band was its steady volume and intensity throughout. Too often they seemed soft when they should punch in the face. They also stepped on dialogue.

Costumes were also a problem in a way I’ve never before seen in a Short North Stage production. Jimmy Early’s character had two wigs I couldn’t picture a self-respecting ’60s star walking out in. Several of the Dreams wore dresses that didn’t seem like they’d been tailored correctly, and not just in scenes where an amateurish quality might have been helpful.

Those technical quibbles aside, Dreamgirls is a show that will remind you how great American music can be. Great voices wrapped around iconic characters and infectious songs, with a molten core of real human soul.

Dreamgirls runs through November 25 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

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