Dreamgirls will always be one of my all-time favourite musicals and theatre shows. With a really solid story about girl power, friendship, love, self discovery, humility and pride, jealousy, and overcoming adversity, and an absolutely banging soundtrack full of soul to accompany it, it is an empowering musical that gets people excited but also emotional, no matter who they are and in particular no matter their race. And for a musical embedded in a genre created and made popular by Black artists, its reach beyond the Black population shows its universal appeal while proudly maintaining its Blackness.
I first saw Dreamgirls in London’s West End several years ago when the marvellous Marisha Wallace took on the coveted role of Effie White. It’s a role that only the most confidently big-voiced women should attempt and could probably pull off. In this production currently touring the UK where I saw it at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, Sharlene Hector graced the stage as Miss White, though it’s hard to see why she is only cast as Effie’s understudy after Nicole Raquel Dennis who I’m sure is brilliant too, but Sharlene was a truly impressive powerhouse. Putting her own spin on the iconic, bombastic vocals of Effie, she was able to emote on a softer level too, often delivering lines and notes with less volume and more constraint while still feeling it and letting the audience feel it too.
Other standout cast members include Matt Mills as Curtis and Brandon Lee Sears as Jimmy Early. The former had a strong voice that channelled Curtis’ assertiveness while the latter really showed he had soul, with a heap of charismatic stage presence needed to play him. Sears also put his own twist on Jimmy, not attempting to replicate the inimitable Eddie Murphy who portrayed him in the 2006 film (the actor who played him in London however, did sound a lot similar to him). And while at times the tonal quality of Sears’ voice was a little screechy at the top, he really shone at the bottom of his range.
In contrast, while I understand the need for Deena Jones to have a much smaller and lighter voice compared to Effie, the difference between Hector and Natalie Kassanga was sometimes a little off, especially on the duet Listen. Here the two should complement and, well, listen to each other and while Effie holds back more, Deena was still barely heard above her. That’s not to say Natalie wasn’t good, for at times it was clear she was purposefully sounding meeker for the role (a role for which Beyoncé’s voice in the film was perhaps a little too strong) and there were some moments where a bigger voice within her came out. Paige Peddie, who plays third Dream Lorrell Robinson also had a couple of times to let her true voice be heard.
What I love about Dreamgirls, especially this production in comparison to the last one I saw, is that it seemed to be more of a show within a show, with the audience a lot more, interactive shall we say. In London, they were more reserved and hooked on watching and appreciating, compared to those in Manchester (perhaps this had something to do with a vast number of Liverpudlians visiting since some of the shows in Liverpool were cancelled at the end of 2021), where the crowd was far more enthusiastic. However, at times this was annoying, with a lot of loud cheering and hollering in certain parts where you would prefer to be able to hear the singing of those on stage rather than the screaming of those watching. And while it was not intentionally rude, you can certainly imagine it was off-putting for the cast and others who were trying to be respectful enough to wait to clap and whoop in the right places.
The beauty and brilliance of Dreamgirls is the unity it represents as well as the almost on the nose, borderline controversial retelling of many soul artists of the 60s and 70s. From The Supremes to James Brown and from The Shirelles to Jackie Wilson, it follows similar real-life storylines yet the characters could have also easily been real themselves. Not to mention the songs – many written in the 70s and 80s for the show’s Broadway debut – genuinely sound like unique hits of that time in their own right. And some of them are right up there in the echelons of musical theatre classics when it comes to catchiness, popularity, memorability and of course jaw-dropping and show-stopping wonder and difficultly.
While you have some musicals and plays that do not originally have Black lead parts or rarely have Black talent playing them but have recently changed that (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Legally Blonde, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Wicked on Broadway, The Cher Show, Beauty and the Beast and Frozen, for example) – all of which show Black actors and actresses that they are not just limited to go for shows like Dreamgirls, this timeless classic is still a strong testament to the power of having a nearly all-Black cast where they can authentically tell the story of their people. This is the flip side to a show such as the recent production of Hairspray I saw where a storyline that is even more centred on Black people, their music and culture as well as racial tensions failed to have enough Black cast members and those who were present were no more than supporting roles. If you’re going to diversify your cast and want to accurately portray stories or adapt shows such as these, not giving POC their dues and the right or enough roles does more damage than good if you’re only simply adding them in as background characters.
All in all, Dreamgirls is a spectacularly soulful, exciting and emotional musical that gives the audience everything they want – feel-good entertainment, danceable music yet songs with unachievable vocals for your average (White) Joe, a thick plot full of drama and surprises, fully fleshed out characters with believable journeys, and for me at a least, a cast that makes you hope they have a bright future of many other roles to take on, which are not just Motormouth Maybelle from Harispray or a character in a Motown-influenced musical or The Lion King.