Growing up, my house was always full of music, predominantly Motown, which even now always takes me back to being eight years old listening to my mum play her records. Stevie Wonder, Billy Ocean, Marvin Gaye all featured regularly but the artist I most remember hearing is Diana Ross, her silky, hauntingly romantic voice pleading with some unknown man to keep loving her while she looked unbelievably glamorous on the record covers. But most of this music came from Ross’s solo career, long after she left The Supremes to go it alone, as so many former band members seem to do, and it’s easy to forget how she got there.
The last couple of years in London have been a fantastic time for lovers of the origins of soul and RnB music, and the fight for equality with several plays and musicals that chart their development. From the Royal Court’s Father Comes Home from the Wars to The National Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Shepherd Bush Theatre’s The Royale, to all singing all dancing productions like Memphis, Motown The Musical and now Dreamgirls, these productions have shown us greater diversity by telling stories about the (largely American) experience of segregation, slavery and the role of music in breaking down racial divides. All of which have been reinforced by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, as well as perfectly timed Black Star season of films currently at the BFI.
The shamefully late arrival of Dreamgirls in the UK may seem astonishing seeing as it premiered on Broadway 35 years ago, but actually it is, in many ways, perfectly timed to coincide with this growing momentum. The show, still in preview at the Savoy Theatre, will be a sensation combining an engaging semi-real story that utilises its songs to advance the characters emotions, with sequin-bedecked visuals – including sets and costume – that look as though they have stepped right out of one of Shirley Bassey’s dreams.
Ettie White is the leader of three-piece girl group The Dreamettes in 1960s America who enter a local talent competition in front of big record producers. But spotting the girls, manger Curtis has other ideas and wants them to sing backing vocals for established singer Jimmy Early rather than have their own career. As relationships form and tempers fray the group begins to separate and when they finally get the chance to go it alone, someone is left behind. The consequences are played out in the 1970s-set Act Two as we see what happens to the characters and whether any of them can ever really break free to pursue their dreams.
Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most striking elements of the show is just how much it deals with the experience of the men surrounding the group and as many of the scenes are about them and their struggle for political and musical acceptance as about the development of the group. Central to the changing dynamics of the plot is the character of Curtis Taylor loosely modelled on Berry Gordy, the former manager of The Supremes, who is both the key to the success of the Dreamgirls and eventually the one holding them back.
The 60s and 70s were still a period when men ruled the world and certainly the music industry, and as this show suggests the same was still true in the black community. Curtis’s world is entirely about fulfilling his dream to merge soul music into something with a pop focus that will make it more tenable to the Hit Parade – gaining radio play and traction among a white-dominated industry. Joe Aaron Reid’s performance makes the character ambiguous enough that you hate his methods but admire his attempt to pioneer musical cross-over, as well as having a degree of sympathy for his motives. Boxing drama The Royale recently asked whether a few casualties are worth it if you start to chip away at the wall and create heroes, and I think Dreamgirls, perhaps unexpectedly, has some of that political edge in places.
While many will be here for Amber Riley, the finest and most intriguing performances of the night comes from Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early, the soul singer whose backing group begins to outstrip him. Already nominated for a Whats On Stage award, despite the show still being in preview which only started a week before nominations were announced, Bernard’s scene stealing performance as the confident diva becomes increasingly sympathetic and multi-layered. His character is a metaphor for the treadmill nature of fame, where stars strive for years to “make-it”, shine briefly before being unceremoniously spat-out by the industry and left struggling for an audience. Bernard’s Jimmy has an Elvis-like sex-appeal which gives his songs considerable dynamism, but he struggles to contain his personality and soul-roots to conform to white ideas of music which add a valuable contrast to the success of the Dreamettes.
The story of the female characters is two-fold, seen both as an issue of race – forcing them to change their look, set-up and style of music – and ideas of gender relations being played out in their narratives, as the men in their lives control and direct them, regardless of their burgeoning fame. Ettie (Amber Riley) may be the original lead but her sass and overconfidence are ultimately her undoing. There is a lot of talk of dreams being stolen throughout the production, with Curtis reminding Diana Ross-based Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) repeatedly that she is fulfilling his dream to produce the kind of music he wants, while Ettie sees Deena living the life she aspired to, yet Deena’s plans to act remain unfulfilled. Likewise third member Lorell (Ibinabo Jack) embarks on an eight-year affair with the married Jimmy when all she wants is to settle down with him. So, based on the decision made by men in the more restrictive society of the 60s and 70s, for much of the production the women are hampered by things outside of their control.
With another week of previews much can change but the production is already a gratifying one for audiences with Riley’s performance as Ettie enthusiastically received. Each Dreamette gets a few solos and Riley’s character has a number of emotional belters that have the audience clapping and whooping from the start. In fairness to the production, Riley’s star power doesn’t overwhelm it and Casey Nicholaw’s direction blends scenes smoothly to ensure the action resumes rapidly, so it really is a team effort telling a story rather than a concert for Riley which it could have become. And pleasingly as the narrative continues the audience begins to show equal appreciation for all the leads because there are some genuinely superb vocal performances particularly from LaFrontaine and Bernard as well as Riley.
With any musical you always want a spectacle and visually Dreamgirls more than delivers the goods. Set designer Tim Hately has created two contrasting worlds with a simple, pared-down set, largely in black for the pre-fame storylines, while his staging of the big concert numbers are full of colour and sparkle. Gregg Barnes’s stunning costumes and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting combine well with Hately’s vision to emphasis the shows core themes, while being practical enough to allow for speedy changes and rapid removal of podia and glitter-curtains.
All of that clearly costs a lot to run, and ticket prices are the big concern with this one. Even in preview, a restricted view seat at the back of the stalls costs the best part of £45 including ATG’s exorbitant booking fees, while those nearer the stage will have parted with £60 to £80 for a single seat. It’s pretty much sold out through December when after press nights the best seats will be £145 while even Grand Circle seats at the very back are £40, all plus booking fee. There is a ticket lottery however and a lucky few may get front row seats for £15 but this will be an expensive night for everyone else.
Dreamgirls is predominately a plot-focused piece so there isn’t always enough time to linger on emotional depth and consequences of events, but the songs and performances give enough of a hint to make the characters more rounded. Yet the overall effect is impressive and at times dazzling. In just over a week’s time the critics will have their say, but audiences are already on their feet about this one. It may have taken 35 years to reach the West End but its central messages are as relevant now as they were in 1981. It may be a bubbly musical, but it has plenty to say about inequality and not letting others stand in your way – and with the year we’ve had, that’s something we all need to hear.
Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre until 6 May and tickets start at £20, although deals are available from other vendors, and a ticket lottery is in operation. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1