Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Baltimore pulls out all the stops with this production of Dreamgirls. From top to bottom, beginning to end, everything about it is larger than life. The vocal performances and musical production numbers are first-rate, sometimes dazzling.
Dreamgirls on Broadway was a Michael Bennett production — the same Michael Bennett who brought us A Chorus Line. It was much acclaimed in 1982 where it garnered a whopping thirteen Tony award nominations and won six. The 2007 movie version was nominated for eight Oscars (the most of any film that year), winning two.
You expect great group production numbers from anything involving Michael Bennett and director David Gregory and choreography Ray Hatch deliver them in spades for Toby’s. At times it seemed difficult to catch a breath with one finely staged musical number or spectacular vocal solo coming so quickly after another. If there is a flaw, it is that Dreamgirls places so much emphasis on the musical numbers that the story tends to fade too far into the background.
It is a good story, too, patterned after the meteoric rise in popularity of the new R & B sound coming out of Motown in the 1960’s. Under the iron grip of Berry Gordy, his Motown record label had 110 top10 hits between 1961 and 1971. This was more than just a stupendous success for Gordy and the dozens of singers he recorded, it was a cultural revolution that brought music generated by black performers to the forefront of mainstream American pop music.
Shayla Simmons as Deena Jones (the Diva) and Ashley Johnson as Lorrell – two of the three “Dreamettes”, the Chicago girl group which becomes the “Dreamgirls” – both have dynamic, show-stopping voices and do very nicely in the scenes that call for some change of pace and a little nuance.
Dreamette Effie, portrayed by Crystal Freeman, stands at the heart of the story. Ms. Freeman does an extraordinary job with the demanding music. She fills the theatre with vocal pyrotechnics that will send shock waves all the way down to your kneecaps. As an actress, she tends to play the part very broadly being ever mindful of the reaction she is generating from the audience – which, by the way, loved every minute of it.
Ray Hatch, playing James “Thunder” Early, the star of the Apollo Theatre, gets caught up in the same dynamic. To put it mildly this man has chops and is not afraid to make full use of them. He maintains a relationship with the audience that is much more akin to a nightclub than it is to a musical. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Hatch is a real crowd pleaser. But it does draw the attention away from the compelling story and strongly in the direction of individual performance.
Toby’s does a particularly fine job of integrating younger talent with their veterans. I was particularly impressed both with Ms. Johnson and David Little who plays Effie’s younger brother, C.C. White, the composer who writes the hit songs for the Dreamgirls. Both are young and very talented. There were at least two other members of the cast who have attended or still are attending D.C. area universities.
Just one technical note having to do with the sound system: the music, including a very fine live band, was so loud and shrill at times it was actually painful. Too often the lyrics were indistinguishable due to the sheer volume. This cast has a number of big voices that may not even need amplification.
There are some outstanding, award-winning songs in this show – “I Am Changing,” “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” and, of course, the theme song, “Dreamgirls.” They deserve to be heard and appreciated coming through a quality sound system.
If you love a big musical with some outstanding individual performances, flashy choreography, colorful costumes (and lots of them) and, particularly the Motown sound of the 60’s and 70’s, Dreamgirls is for you.
Book & Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Original Broadway Production Directed and Choreographed by Michael Bennett
Directed by David Gregory
Choreography by Ray Hatch
Musical direction by Cedric Lyles
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes including one 20 minute intermssion