It’s honestly surprising how it’s taken this long to bring Dreamgirls to the West End (a whopping 35 years since its debut on Broadway), but when you have a show with such high production value, the wait was well worth it! Inspired by R&B groups such as The Supremes, Dreamgirls follows the rise of fictitious R&B girl group The Dreams as they grow up and find their way in the treacherous world of showbiz in the 60s. Made famous with a film adaptation in 2006 that featured Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls on stage a completely different experience, and more or less blows the film out of the water.
Dreamgirls is essentially a show that’s all about Effie White, and Riley embodies Effie completely onstage, from her larger than life diva attitude, to her sonorous set of pipes that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. No stranger to the song, her tearful rendition of “And I Am Telling You” drove the audience to whoops, cheers and finally, a rousing standing ovation to round off the end of the first act. Her remaining solo songs in the second act “I Am Changin'” and “One Night Only” don’t give her as much of an opportunity to work those vocal chords, but are impressive nonetheless, and only prove that she’s just as talented onstage as TV, if not more so. Effie White is a notoriously difficult role to play in terms of emotional and vocal range, but Riley has done it with aplomb. Dreamgirls feels like Amber Riley’s big break post-Glee, and if Jennifer Hudson could walk away with an Academy Award, I’ll be damned if Riley goes home empty handed at the next Olivier Awards.
Riley establishes her presence as the biggest star early on in the musical, but she’s not the only person worth listening to. Adam J Bernard plays the Cassanova-esque, loose cannon singer Jimmy Early, and has his fair share of standout songs as well. In particular, each of his numbers allow him the chance to completely let loose, staring straight into audience members’ eyes with a wild look of something wholly animal, while sweeping across the stage, untamed and amazing. Even when he’s restricted by needing to conform to more mainstream tastes, it’s almost heartbreaking to seem him so restrained in his clean, fully buttoned suits, and his unhappiness is clearly displayed even as he croons slow ballads. Thankfully, he eventually sheds this persona, and the result of the years of repressed performances is both shocking and wow-inducing, in “The Rap”, repeatedly insisting ‘Jimmy got soul!’
Liisi LaFontaine’s performance as Deena is spectacular, easily portraying her character’s evolution from a shy, mousey girl in the background to a confident superstar completely in her element. When she’s promoted from backup to lead, there is a distinct shift in power dynamic, and even the fiery Effie causing trouble onset and in the middle of performances is no match for her when she puts her foot down, leading to the heartbreaking dismissal of Effie from the Dreams. Deena’s songs, though not as vocally demanding as Effie’s, are still impressive, being more physically demanding instead with some slick choreography involved, such as in the disco version of “One Night Only”, all while singing. But LaFontaine shows that she too can let her voice soar, in her and Riley’s duet of “Listen” towards the end of the second act, reuniting the two.
For both LaFontaine and Riley though, to be the heroines they ended up as required a good antagonist, and he came in the form of Curtis Taylor Jr., played by Joe Aaron Reid. Reid is devilishly handsome and charming, emphasis on the devilish, and maneuvers between perfect gentleman and slick salesman, to manipulating, moral-free cutthroat businessman, all the while maintaining a winsome grin. There is a distinct air of fear and uneasiness when Reid sings “When I First Saw You” with LaFontaine, and the words “You were my dream” take on a much more sinister intent, leaving audience members unsure whether to applaud at the end.
Costume designer Gregg Barnes really captured the 60s aesthetic with his bold colour choices, moving from blocky, cheery primary colours at the start to more revealing, glitzy, sequin-studded sparkly dresses and suits later on, reflecting the characters’ gradual descent into the perils of the entertainment world and need to be flashy later on. Speaking of flashy, Tim Hatley’s set and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design will blind you with the abundance of crystals and glitter in the air. At the same time, the two also know when to hold back, with numbers such as “Family” having a more naturalistic lighting, and a single spotlight that tightens till it only shows Effie’s face in “I Am Changin'”. The set and lighting are spectacular in themselves, but do not detract from the performance, instead only enhancing the already amazing show.
All in all, Dreamgirls is a whirlwind of a musical with showstopping numbers that come one after the other, packed with raw emotion and catchy beats. Kudos to the ensemble for being such chameleons, switching between such high energy scenes with deceptive ease. Dreamgirls is thoroughly enjoyable and hard to forget, and is one of the best things on the West End right now. If anything, it’s definitive proof that Amber Riley was one of the most talented cast members on Glee, and like Effie, her voice will take her far in this industry. Catch it while you can, because this show is chock-full of heart, drama and above all – soul.
Dreamgirls plays at the Savoy Theatre, London till October 2017. Tickets available here or via TodayTix. You can also enter the daily TodayTix lottery on the app to win the chance to buy up to a pair of 15 pound front row tickets (which we can attest is a pretty sweet deal!)
All photo credit to Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.