Monday, August 12, 2013

Theater Review: Dreamgirls -- Ivoryton Playhouse

Sheniqua Denise Trotman as Effie. Photo: Anne Hudson. 
Oh, My. I Said, Oh, My, This One’s a Dream
By Lauren Yarger
With a strong cast, a profusion of sparkling costumes and a nine-person band, Ivoryton Playhouse goes full out to produce a version of the musical Dreamgirls that really is a dream.

The musical, which was nominated for 13 Tony Awards on Broadway back in 1981 is a challenge for theater groups wanting to stage the tale of the rise of an African-American singing group (reminiscent of the The Supremes or The Shirelles) in the 1960s. Not only is the musical score by Henry Krieger (with lyrics by Tom Eyen, who wrote the book) difficult to sing vocally, but the actress who plays Effie always finds herself in the shadow of Jennifer Holliday, who won a Tony for a Best Actress for her performance. Her rendition of “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going” was so dramatic that it is etched forever on the minds of anyone who saw it. 

Add to that Jennifer Hudson’s Academy Award-winning performance in the movie adaptation and suddenly finding an “Effie” who can anchor this show often proves to be a daunting job. Not just any actress can pull it off, even if she can belt.

Director Lawrence Thelen proves himself up to the challenge, however, with the casting of terrific nonEquity actress Sheniqua Denise Trotman from Huntsville, AL. Her “I’m Not Going” puts focus on the emotional pain felt by the character and is a powerhouse exploration of the lyrics. In between all that belting. Kudos.

Effie is lead singer of the Dreamettes singing group made up of Lorell Robinson (Ashley Jeudy, who just did a turn at Ivoryton in Footloose) and her best friend Deena Jones (Jennlee Shallow from Trinidad who has starred in The Lion King tours, Ragtime at the Kennedy Center and was the lead singer in Cirque d Soleil’s Las Vegas Vivo Elvis). They are signed as a backup group for Jimmy Early (a sensational Caliaf St. Aubyn) by shady manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Damian Norfleet) who wins Effie’s heart.

Effie’s songwriter brother, C.C. (Datus Puryear) helps Jimmy hit the top of the charts, but Jimmy’s manager, Marty (Colin Lyle Howard) , grows more and more annoyed with Curtis’ interference. Finally the girls split off to form their own act, the Dreams, but the break comes with a change: Curtis wants Deena to sing lead.

As Curtis turns his attention toward making Deena a star – and his next romantic conquest – Effie finds it harder to perform and starts missing appointments, or showing up late. Thelen stages a beautiful moment where Curtis and Deena discuss the future downstage as a devastated Effie looks on through the fog further upstage. Without notice, Curtis replaces her with another singer, Michelle Morris (Brennyn Lark Langhorn), and Effie becomes estranged from her lover, best friend and brother.

Years later, down to her last shot at making it in the music business, Effie allows Marty to try to revive her career with “One Night Only,” the latest pop hit penned for her by C.C.

The costumes designed by Njaye Olds) are amazing. There are so many, you can’t count, but they sparkle, flow (and in one number don’t cover very much) and help create the tone and era of the musical. Each one contains exquisite detail and is part of something larger. The Dreams, for instance, all wear beautiful dresses – each slightly different and accented in blend. Todd L. Underwood choreographs here (the original show was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett).

St. Aubyn lights up the stage (even brighter than the pretty nifty lighting show designed by Marcus Abbot who also designs the sets) with a humorous and consuming performance as the singer who battles with delivering the more “white” sound booking venues want with the more free, rhythmic and black sound that bursts out of him. His performance is so engaging, in fact, that the audience has to remind itself to side with Lorell when she finally tells her two-timing lover they are through.

The band, relatively large for Ivoryton, is conducted by Musical Director Mike Morris who is Director of Music for the Hartt School Theater Division at University of Hartford.

This is one of the biggest musicals Ivoryton has ever produced. And one of the best. Don’t miss it.

Dreamgirls runs at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Sept.1. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday at 2pm; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.. Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children: 860-767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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