Revived 'Dream' is short on glitz Review: Broadway-bound Motown musical lacks the power of the original.

January 15, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As dreams go, the revival of "Dreamgirls" at the Mechanic Theatre is in the small-to-medium range. And that's unfortunate since it has big-time aspirations -- Broadway.

Granted, there are some big voices on stage, particularly those of B.J. Crosby and Kevin-Anthony. And Theoni V. Aldredge's costume designs are as spangly and lavish as ever.

But as the oft-repeated refrain of this Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen musical reminds us, "Dreamgirls" is a show about "show biz," and that's a subject that demands a larger-than-life presentation.

When it opened on Broadway in 1981 under the late Michael Bennett's direction (essentially replicated here by Tony Stevens), the way "Dreamgirls" looked was almost as revolutionary as the way it sounded -- a Motown musical on the Great White Way.

The chief element of Robin Wagner's set design was a quartet of imposing light towers that moved and swiveled automatically to establish the numerous locations in which the show takes place. On tour, Wagner's towers have always been moved by the cast, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in their current rendition, the towers are mere shadows of their former selves -- no longer conveying a sense of the glitz, glamour and heights the show's ambitious vocal trio hopes to achieve.

That trio is a Supremes-like girl group that calls itself the Dream-ettes, until the name is streamlined to the Dreams. And that's not all that's streamlined. The group's lead singer, Effie, is a large woman with a large voice. When the Dreams' conniving manager decides the group needs a "lighter" sound to cross over to the pop charts, he also decides it needs a lighter look, and Effie is downgraded to backup and then replaced completely.

Crosby, the Broadway veteran who recently took over the role of Effie, definitely has the vocal prowess to play this distinctive and demanding character. In her first song with the Dreamettes, "Move (You're Steppin' on My Heart)," you can sense her subsequent show-stopping rant, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," waiting to come out.

When she finally gets to that number, near the end of the first act, Crosby's belting delivery doesn't disappoint. But her acting, like much of the acting in this production, doesn't convey the immense passion underlying the immense sound.

One exception is Kevin-Anthony's portrayal of the show's Little Richard-type character, James Thunder Early, who's got too much soul for the white-bread pop world. Not only does Kevin-Anthony have the best and most versatile singing voice of any of the male cast members, but he also brings the most heart to his role -- even though that role is often a source of comic relief.

As the Dreams' Deena Jones, the Diana Ross figure who takes over the lead singer's slot, statuesque La Tanya Hall is pretty, vocally and physically, but doesn't have enough charisma to be convincing as an international superstar.

The chief way in which this revival recalls the glory of the Broadway original is the cinematic flow of the scenes. For example, the song "Steppin' to the Bad Side" begins with the powers behind the Dreamettes deciding they'll grease whatever palms necessary to get the group to the top. The song then glides into a production number in which we see a chorus of gray-suited businessmen being bribed. And finally, when "Steppin' to the Bad Side" has become a hit, James Thunder Early and the Dreamettes perform it in concert, decked out in sequins and satin.

It's indicative of how influential this type of fluid staging has become that audiences now take it for granted. And it's certainly one reason "Dreamgirls" remains so entertaining -- despite being a bit long. This latest version is several steps up from the bus-and-truck rendition that played the Lyric in 1994. But in terms of sets and drama, it still lacks the power of the original, and it is almost certain to be outclassed if it makes the move to Broadway. As James Thunder Early might say, it needs more soul.

'Dreamgirls'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $31.50-$57.50

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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