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Review: ‘Dreamgirls’ stuns with gritty, glitzy R&B soundtrack

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"Dreamgirls," the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about the joys and struggles of the all-women R&B trio The Dreamettes, plays at Capitol Theatre Feb. 5-10. Courtesy of Levi Walker

By ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 06 2013 05:21PM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:32PM

Amid all the songs and show numbers packed into "Dreamgirls" — and no one would deny that composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen proved themselves prodigious on that score — it’s sometimes a little too easy to forget the real driver at the wheel of this classy, sassy Broadway musical.

Forget, for a moment, the sumptuous R&B sound track on continuous display. Whether or not she’s on stage, the show is all about Effie Melody White. And it’s great, but also poignant fun, to witness her ultimate vindication on stage after losing grace with almost everyone around her.

Forget the old adage about hell and a woman scorned. In Effie, and in "Dreamgirls," we have a heroine who proves that revenge is best served hot, and with a big heart to boot.

None of this is a spoiler for the well-known story. Director Bill Condon’s 2006 film adaptation of the musical preserved the musical’s warmth and charm, but pressed the story line’s unspoken Motown record label parallels too far for some.

No less than Smokey Robinson was prompted to speak in Motown founder Berry Gordy’s defense. The film studio eventually cleared the air regarding any unintended comparisons between Gordy and events and characters in the musical.

As for the touring national musical playing at Capitol Theatre through Feb. 10, it’s sensational regardless of any ill-served, but tempting, comparisons to real life. But make no mistake, "Dreamgirls," more than most musicals, is as true-to-life as they come.

The story follows three young women on a determined prowl for fame as the Dreamettes, fresh from their Chicago hometown, head straight to the Apollo Theater stage in Harlem for a talent competition. They don’t win, but persevere. With Curtis Taylor, Jr., as their new manager, played with suave assertiveness by South African actor Aubrey Poo, they backup performer James "Thunder" Early. That’s until striking out for the charts on their own, leading at last to severed relations between Effie and everyone she once loved and trusted.

Jasmin Richardson renders "Dreamette" Deena Jones sufficiently sexy as the smooth operator who spoils Effie’s aspirations as if by default. Michael Jahlil offers up a sensational turn as Early, a kind of crazed amalgam of Little Richard and James Brown who hogs the stage — rightly so — whenever it’s his turn. "Steppin’ to the Bad Side," plus "I Meant You No Harm" with its segue into "The Rap" went down as absolute treats.

Hearts open wide, and the house more or less surrenders, when it’s Charity Dawson’s turn to shine as Effie Melody White. As the earthy, wounded but also proud counterpart to the medium-cold sophistication of Richardson’s Deena Jones, Dawson’s Effie is the sort of character that defies you not to adore her. Dawson also boasts a voice so robust, soaring and alive it would cow the most stalwart of opera singers. Like the closing number "Defying Gravity" in the first act of "Wicked," Effie’s "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going" is one for the ages, and marvelous in Dawson’s aching rendition.

If there’s one minor let-down afoot, it’s the endless shuffle of hologram plates on stage as scenes progress. For logistical purposes, they’re a fine recreation of the neon-marquee atmosphere pervading show business. Over time, they become somewhat soulless.

At more than two and a half hours long, "Dreamgirls" plays best to an audience drawn toward R&B music and the 1960s era of young black America striving against all odds. Even without those penchants, the musical is bound to pay dividends for anyone interested in the mechanisms of perseverance. As James "Thunder" Early puts it early in Act One, "The best survive no matter where they’re put!"

bfulton@sltrib.com

Twitter:@Artsalt

Facebook.com/fulton.ben

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