Ashley Johnson, Crystal Freeman, Shayla Simmons and Shayla… (Photo by Kirstine Christiansen,…)
Just as the Supremes climbed their way to the top of the pop music charts in the early 1960s, the suspiciously similar soul trio called the Dreams claws its way to the top in Michael Bennett's 1981 Broadway musical "Dreamgirls." These biographical connections are made loud and clear in the crowd-pleasing production of "Dreamgirls" at Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre.
Everything is made loud, if not always clear, in a staging whose sound levels take an already-boisterous show into decibel-elevated territory. A direct consequence of the overly emphatic and sometimes distorted volume is that the talented performers working under director David Gregory and musical director Cedric Lyles seem like they're shouting their way through nearly every scene of this musical melodrama.
"Dreamgirls" is a glitzy and gutsy show that obviously has a number of scenes in which going over the top is the norm. Other scenes would benefit from allowing the performers to speak and sing in gentler tones, which this production only permits on a few occasions. Bringing the sound down a notch would be kinder to your ears and also to a production that really does not need to shout in order to get your attention.
This musical's girl-group story is so primal that it qualifies as a Motown myth that one never tires of hearing again. It's about three girls who start off singing backup, evolve into slickly packaged performers who cross over from the R&B to the pop charts, and who then fall apart owing to deliciously soap operatic reasons.
Every emotional crisis is accompanied by another costume change, so what's not to like?
Well-cast performers in the central roles in the Toby's production immediately ensure that the right dramatic dynamic is established.
Deena Jones (Shayla Simmons) is slender, beautiful and very ambitious. Although her public persona is modest and polite, those who pass within her starry aura know that they had better address her as Miss Jones. Simmons' light voice and brittle personality make Deena resemble Diana R… — well, you know, a certain famous Motown star with supreme talent.
The nice and naive Lorrell Robinson (Ashley Johnson) seems largely content to sing in Deena's shadow, but the full-figured and full-voiced Effie White (Crystal Freeman) is explosively bitter about having to sing supportive oohs and aahs behind Deena's relatively thin lead vocals.
When Effie's anger is released in the volcanic "(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going," it unleashes such wildly supportive applause and shouting from the audience that you almost expect the Toby's crowd to rush the stage, put a crown on Effie's head, and lock Deena in her dressing room.
Although Freeman's big voice gets the job done in this show-defining number, she starts off shouting and has nowhere to go other than to shout some more. Her singing hits your gut, but incorporating more emotional variety in her delivery would reach your heart in a deeper sense. When Freeman subsequently softens her voice for the ballad "I Am Changing," it's refreshingly evident that she knows how to alternate subtle and sledgehammer vocal effects.
Most of the male characters in "Dreamgirls" are slick guys who really can't be trusted. When the Dreams aren't engaging in lively catfights with each other, they're having managerial and romantic squabbles with those no-good men.
As James "Thunder" Early, the James Brown-evocative soul star for whom they initially sing backup, Ray Hatch gives a performance that is as assertive as the eye-popping colors in his wardrobe. Himself a vintage song-and-dance man on local stages, the energetic Hatch also choreographed this show. His hard-edged singing, extroverted dancing and vaudeville-worthy comic acting make him fun to follow throughout the evening.
Among the other capable male performers in the cast, special mention should be made of Jonathan Randle as Curtis Taylor Jr. Although we are not supposed to admire Curtis' smooth operator behavior, Randle's vocals are so smooth that it's easy to see how he's able to manipulate the ladies.
There is a lot of manipulation going on in "Dreamgirls," as these showbiz types sing and fight and then sing some more. That's why the audience loves every mascara-running moment.
"Dreamgirls" runs through Nov. 13 at Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre, in the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center at 5625 O'Donnell St., in Baltimore. Call 410-649-1660 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.