Dreamgirls -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Any staging of the musical "Dreamgirls" has a lot of history to contend with. Anyone who saw the now legendary original 1981 production so brilliantly directed by Michael Bennett will never forget it, and the 2006 movie version was no slouch either. The current revival, playing a limited run at the Apollo Theater before beginning a national tour and a possible return to Broadway, is unlikely to erase anyone's memories. But it generally gets the job done, and anyone approaching the show without too much baggage is likely to have a fine time.

Certainly, it goes a long way toward restoring the reputation of director-choreographer Robert Longbottom, who was recently raked over the coals for his disastrous Broadway staging of "Bye Bye Birdie."

Longbottom has obviously looked to Bennett for inspiration for his cinematic-style staging, which uses a plethora of massive LED panels to create many memorable stage images. But while the technology is effective, it sometimes produces a disconcerting distancing effect.

The show, essentially a roman a clef about the rise and fall of the Supremes, still holds up beautifully as a vibrant portrayal of the transmutation of '60s R&B into pop and the artistic comprises that black performers of the era had to make in order to achieve crossover success.

Although clearly designed for the road, the show doesn't skimp on production values, with William Ivey Long's eye-popping costumes (and there are plenty of them), Ken Billington's lighting design and Paul Huntley's wigs proving outstanding elements.

In the pivotal role of Effie -- the plus-sized Dreamette who is so rudely shoved aside in order to make the more eye-pleasing Deena Jones the star -- newcomer Moya Angela proves a worthy successor to such predecessors as Jennifer Holliday and the Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson. The big-voiced performer more than fulfills the demands of the part with her rendition of the show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," even if the impact of the number is necessarily lessened by familiarity.

The true standout, however, is Chester Gregory, who delivers a dynamic performance as the James Brown-like James "Thunder" Early. Gregory, best known for his turn as "Seaweed" in the Broadway production of "Hairspray," seems to have springs in his legs, and his electrifying dancing here produces one gasp after another.

The rest of the parts are handled capably, with "American Idol" runner-up Syesha Mercado a suitably beautiful Deena and Adrienne Warren even better as the unheralded Lorrell. Margaret Hoffman also makes a strong impression in her few scenes as the interloping Dreamette.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd is suitably intense as the scheming manager Curtis Taylor Jr., and Trevon Davis is highly appealing as the frustrated songwriter C.C. White.

Although Longbottom's staging and choreography pales next to the original, he's done a fine job with several numbers, especially "Steppin' to the Dark Side," which employs those LED screens with imaginative flair. And the nifty quick costume changes produce the desired dazzling effect.

Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen's (lyrics) score remains an effective pastiche of '60s styles. It has here been augmented with two additions: "What Love Can Do," the second-act opener, and the Effie/Deena duet "Listen," written for the film, which serves as a strong 11:00 number.

The production also gains immeasurable resonance from its being presented at this intimate and historic venue, where the opening and (for this version) closing numbers are actually set.

Venue: Apollo Theater, New York, (through Dec. 12)
Presented by John Breglio and Vienna Waits Productions in association with Chunsoo Shin, Jake Produtions & Broadway Across America/TBS
Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
CAST: Moya Angela, Syesha Mercado, Chaz Lamar Shpherd, Chester Gregory, Adirenne Warren, Trevon Davis, Margaret Hoffman, Milton Craig Nealy
Director/choreographer: Robert Longbottom
Scenic design: Robin Wagner
Costume design: William Ivey Long
Lighting design: Ken Billington
Sound design: Acme Sound Partners