Theatre Reviews
Photo by Phillip Hamer courtesy of The Muny

The phrase “bring down the house” has a long history, dating back to the 18th century. It’s been used by theater critics and reviewers to describe a performance that deserves an enthusiastic accolade. There are several such moments in the Muny’s current production of “Dreamgirls.” But the one that reigns supreme is also one of most iconic and powerful numbers in all of musical theater – that’s “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going.”

Tiffany Mann’s performance of this defining number did not “bring down the house.” It raised it high with her extraordinary vocal prowess range as well as her powerful stage presence that revealed her character Effie’s raw strength and vulnerability. The audience responded with a rousing standing ovation – an ovation in the middle of a song in the middle of the show. That’s the true definition of a showstopping performance.

Mann’s performance of this number alone is worth the price of a ticket, but it is one of many commendable facets of this production that shimmers, slinks, shines and shimmies. Mann provides one of two versions of the catchy “One Night Only.” Mann’s interpretation is a soulful heartfelt and poignant. The character Deena Jones, played and sung by Aisha Jackson and her girl group, The Dreams, belt out a disco version that is vibrant and energetic.  

The role of Deena Jones balances Effie the storyline of “Dreamgirls” so does Aisha Jackson as Deena balance Mann’s performance. As Deena, Jackson seamlessly transitions from a shy backup singer to the glamorous lead of the Dreams, embodying the complexities of stardom and personal growth. Jackson’s Deena captures her evolution with nuanced depth and portrays her initial innocence and the subsequent transformation into a poised, self-assured star. She skillfully conveys Deena’s internal struggles, and her vocal prowess shines with a difference, but no less impactful, emotional weight.

There are some dream guys along with the dream girls, including Nick Rashad Burroughs as  Jimmy “Thunder” Early, an R&B singer with powerful voice and swagger of James Jackie Wilson. Burroughs adeptly delivers a Jimmy who is charismatic and flamboyant yet arrogant and philandering. One of Burroughs’ best performances was Jimmy’s introductory song, “Fake Your Way To the Top,” which Burroughs delivers with zest and bravura. True to his character’s name, Burroughs comes in hot and early and thunders – even in his ballads – throughout.

Charl Brown plays Curtis Taylor Jr., the ambitious and charismatic manager. Brown’s performance (though sometimes too soft to hear over the music) nonetheless captures Curtis’ complex duality, blending charm and ruthlessness. Aramie Payton plays C.C. White, the talented songwriter and brother of Effie. Payton delivers a strong performance (though, like Brown’s, his vocals were sometimes threatened by the force of the music) convincingly portrays C.C.’s journey from an idealistic composer to a man torn by the pressures of the industry and family dynamics. His interactions are heartfelt, particularly in moments of conflict and reconciliation, showcasing his emotional depth, integrity and authenticity to capture the essence of his artistic vision and personal struggles.

Director Robert Clater’s creative vision transforms the stage into a vibrant canvas where the music pulses with energy, the choreography dazzles with precision, and the story resonates with themes of ambition, betrayal and redemption.

Along with scenic designer Edward E. Haynes, Jr., costume designer Leon Dobkowski and video designer Elaine J. McCarthy, this is an appropriately dazzling production of “Dreamgirls” that unfolds with opulent, multi-tiered sets that seamlessly transition from backstage drama to glittering concert halls. The use of video projections in this production of "Dreamgirls" adds a dynamic and immersive layer to the show, seamlessly enhancing the storytelling and visual appeal. To McCarthy’s credit, the integration of video technology enriches the overall “Dreamgirls” experience, making the production feel modern and innovative while preserving the nostalgic essence of the original musical.

In the Muny’s production, the dynamic choreography and vibrant costumes combine to enhance the energetic dance routines, accentuated by the dazzling wardrobe choices that perfectly capture the essence of the Motown era. The seamless integration of these elements results in a visually stunning and rhythmically captivating experience.

The set designs, reflecting the music industry’s evolution from the 1960s to the 1970s, enhance the show’s authenticity and immersive quality. This blend of strong performances, engaging visuals and nostalgic musical arrangements ensures that “Dreamgirls” is a Bob Mackie fever dream crossed with a Motown revue. There’s even a real, vintage Cadillac convertible in the stage’s turntable for the “Cadillac Car” number. You don’t see that very often.

If you like your Muny musicals filled with electrifying vocals, dynamic choreography and lavish stage design, then this “Dreamgirls” is for you.

“Dreamgirls” continues at the Muny in Forest Park nightly at 8:15 through July 3. For information on this and upcoming productions, visit the Muny web site.

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