By Daschell M. Phillips
Dazzling costumes, strong voices and suave dance moves come standard in stage productions such as Dream Girls, and director John Ruffin’s staging for the Harold Washington Cultural Center’s “Broadway to Bronzeville” series follows suit.
While the storyline and culture of the production is uniform, Ruffin has still found ways to set his production apart from the rest.
One of his most noticeable stamps on this timeless story is the dancers. Dancers of all types – tap, ballet, modern and interpretive appear in the show.
Whether they are tap dancing in harmony during the beginning verses of Step into the Bad Side, or spinning in circles and darting
across the stage in the disco version of One Night Only, the dancers show themselves as just as skillful and elegant as the leading cast.
However, there are moments when the sea of dancers seem to overshadow the leads. I was torn between feasting my eyes on the actors’ stunning costumes or the spirited movements of the dancers. The dancers won out more than I wanted them to.
The play is a fictional story based on the true lives of early R&B acts of the ‘60s, with an emphasis on a trio of singers initially named the Dreamettes.
In the first act, the singers, Effie White (China Stewart), the full-figured head honcho of the group with a strong, soulful voice; Deena Jones (Opal Staples Nesbitt); and Lorrell Robinson (Ta-Tynisa Wilson), arrive at a talent competition along with Effie’s brother and songwriter CC (Joshua N. Banks), with hopes of making it to the big time.
Crushed by yet another attempt to make it in show business, the group prepares to head home until car dealer, manager and backstage hustler Curtis Taylor Jr. (KC Lee) gives the group hope by offering them a touring gig as backup singers for the notable, and notorious, James “Jimmy Thunder” Early (Mark Smith), who has lost yet another duo of backup singers due to his philandering ways.
Effie initially objects to the idea of being Jimmy’s doo-wop girls, but concedes to the task at the behest of the group and because of the flirtatious advances from Curtis. Once the deal is made, Jimmy and star struck Lorrell waste no time pursuing each other romantically.
Identifying an opportunity to crossover into the world of pop music, Curtis gives the Dreamettes their own act, with a few alterations.
With two-thirds of the group (Effie and Lorrell) having developed into womanhood, Curtis announces that the group would now be known as the “Dreams” then he soberly announces the slimmer, soft-voiced Deena as the group’s new lead singer.
Having been bumped by Deena as the leading lady, both on stage and in Curtis’ bed, Effie becomes increasingly agitated and unpredictable.
Fed up with Effie’s antics, Curtis replaces her entirely with Michelle Morris (Melissa Garcia), and 19-year-old Stewart goes into a searing execution of Effie’s swan song And I Am Telling You.
Stewart’s performance of this classic is electric and does its job as the midway showstopper.
In the performance I saw, in addition to the conflict of Effie’s not wanting her dream of having love and a singing career to come to an end, Stewart had to deal with a dramatic situation of her own.
While going through the motions of Effie’s traumatic breakdown, Stewarts’ tuxedo-ruffled, button front shirt burst open!
Facing the fact that she was unable to use her moments of scripted physical struggle with Lee before he storms out so that she might quickly re-button her shirt, Stewart took a “the show must go on” attitude and passionately completed her performance. She swayed the crowd’s attention from being nervous about her exposure to wildly applauding her for her awesome voice and brave performance.
Smith’s portrayal of Jimmy Early is also a crowd pleaser. Smith’s commanding presence and raspy soul-filled voice makes him the dominant player in each of his scenes.
From his lust-filled, doomed affair with Lorrell to the rousing pants-dropping performance of his “Jimmy Got Soul” rap, Smith’s character brings a refreshing wind to scenes that are clouded by the mounting tension between Effie, Curtis and Deena.
With all the gusto displayed by Jimmy in the play, it is truly a shame to see that his response to the loss of his career and his girl in one fell swoop ends with a simple hanging of his head and a whimpering chant of, “you can’t kill a brother with soul.”
The set design toggles back and forth between four beamed pillars representing the backstage; a lounge with a piano, bar, and round tables and a recording studio with a shaky, descending sound booth and sound board.
Other effects, such as a spotlight trick that allowed Effie to have a wardrobe change on stage while singing I Am Changing, are cleverly done. There is also a multi-media component of a video recorded press conference of Curtis announcing the farewell performance of the “Dreams.”
There were a few sound issues in the first act of the two-part production that I saw. Soft-spoken Deena was barely audible in Act I due to low cut microphones that even cut out at times, but things worked out for the innocent aspirant turned disco diva by Act II when a bolder, blonde wig-clad Deena belted out One Night Only with tremendous bravado.
Ruffin’s Dream Girls Chicago is a true celebration of African-American art in all its forms and is a great launch of the “Broadway to Bronzeville” series.
Theatergoers will have a fun time interacting with the show as house lights are sporadically turned up and the audience is encouraged to stand up, dance and sing along.