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DREAMGIRLS

Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SOUL

Kuumba Theatre

Through fortuitous coincidence--though Nancy Reagan might say it was in the stars--Chicago theatergoers are being offered a sort of mini-saga about the social and artistic evolution of black music and its all-important roots in the black family. This completely unplanned saga consists of Kuumba Theatre's Gospel According to Soul and Candlelight Dinner Playhouse's Dreamgirls, which opened within a week of each other late last month. The saga is incomplete; it starts in the 40s, jumps over the 50s, and picks up again in the 60s and 70s. But the story these shows tell is authentic and quite striking, and for lovers of gospel and soul, it's rapture.

Dreamgirls, of course, is the Broadway hit conceived and directed by the late Michael Bennett; having played in Chicago in two Broadway touring versions (one mediocre at the Shubert, one magnificent at the Chicago), the work is now receiving its regional theater premiere. Conventional wisdom has it that Dreamgirls is a thinly veiled retelling of the story of the Supremes, the three poor black girls who were transformed by manager Berry Gordy Jr. into the most popular and glamorous female trio of their day--at the expense of their artistic integrity and personal happiness. But Dreamgirls is about much more than just one group; it distills a huge chunk of black cultural and social experience into a single, archetypal story.

For all its bubbling rhythm and funky humor, Dreamgirls is a tragedy, a classic story of hubris with not one but two tragic heroes: Effie Melody White and Curt's Taylor Jr. Effie is the overwrought and overweight lead singer of a Chicago-based vocal trio called the Dreamettes, Curtis is a car salesman determined to make it in a white man's world. Curtis takes Effie and the Dreamettes under his wing (after bribing a talent-show host to make sure the girls lose a contest and are forced to turn to him for help), teams them with a James Brown-style singer named James Thunder Early, and gradually grooms them for superstardom (at Early's expense) by smoothing out their sound, dressing them in elegant gowns, taking Effie out of the lead spot, and replacing her with the beautiful backup singer Deena Jones. Effie, brought low by her own self-indulgence and scorned ego, is kicked out of the group; while the repackaged Dreams soar to the top, Effie licks her wounds and plots her comeback. Act two shows the visionary but unscrupulous Curtis being destroyed by his own ambition and pride, as Effie wins a richly deserved--and, to the audience, richly satisfying--revenge, while Deena and the third Dreamgirl, Lorell, find their independence as women and artists.

In his director's notes, Michael Bennett says Dreamgirls is about the "behind-the-scenes reality" of the soul-music industry. But this rags-to-riches, self-destruction-to-self-renewal saga is as much the stuff of dreams as the Dreams' cannily packaged image. Dreamgirls is grand opera, glorious melodrama full of heightened emotions and dizzying plot twists. The story is told through a brilliant series of set pieces in which the events of the characters' lives are represented in the songs they sing onstage. For example, Curtis's prophetic pronouncement that "R & B" can stop being "Right in the Background" by being less "Rough and Black" is delivered in the form of a hot new song, "Cadillac Car," which is stolen from the black singers by a white-bread Pat Boone type. Curtis's next step--making a payola deal with the mob--is dramatized in the dark, dangerous, and danceable "Steppin' to the Bad Side," which begins as a Temptations-style male quartet for Curtis and his partners and evolves, stunningly, into a full-out production number for Jimmy, the Dreams, and the band. Even more successfully, and far more provocatively, than in his super-popular A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett found in Dreamgirls the perfect way to use performance as both a vehicle and a metaphor for his story,

Much of the credit goes to librettist Tom Eyen, a leading figure in New York underground theater in the 60s and 70s before winning his own crossover success with the script and lyrics for Dreamgirls. Eyen's book isn't packed with memorable lines (though there are a few zingers; who else would have given a composer a line like "I don't take that talk from no second-rate diva who can't sustain" at a key emotional moment?), but it is flawless in the way it balance's the various characters' conflicting aspirations while tracing the development of popular culture.

The characters' familial and thematic relationships are especially clear in the Candlelight production, directed by William Pullinsi and choreographed by Bennett protege Danny Herman. Though one misses the high-tech razzle-dazzle of Bennett's original, Pullinsi's intimate and thoughtful in-the-round staging and the sharp images of Herman's dances communicate the story with bold immediacy. The excellent cast deliver quickly identifiable and distinctive characterizations, in addition to their rich renditions of Henry Krieger's cleverly crafted pop score.

There were some significant flaws in the opening performance on May 26--the production simply didn't seem quite ready to open. Though there were no obvious technical glitches, many of the emotional connections between the characters didn't breathe with life--a problem that should get fixed as the ensemble settles into the work. I hope, for instance, that Lynette DuPre stops rushing through the role of Effie (the part created by Jennifer Holliday). Though she excelled in Effie's comic moments and danced quite well, DuPre's belting style seemed facile and superficial. Neither the much-awaited first-act finale, "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going," nor the climactic second-act reunion of Effie and the Dreams had the emotional enormity, the feeling of apotheosis, that they should have had.

The rest of the cast fared better, though they all have a lot of growing into their roles ahead of them. The strongest female performance came, interestingly, in a role that is often overlooked: Lorell, the third Dreamgirl, who moves from wide-eyed innocence to tough determination through her disillusioning affair with the womanizing Jimmy Early. The clarion-voiced Victoria Jones's interaction with the dynamic Marshall Titus in Lorell and Jimmy's scenes were genuine, funny, and moving. And Titus's rendition of Jimmy's dilemma as he is repackaged from sex machine to Miami Beach crooner was every bit as funny and desperate as it should be. Alton F. White sings beautifully as Curtis, but needs to develop more charisma in this all-important role. Kevyn Burrows is engaging as Effie's nerdy songwriter brother C.C., who sings the show's loveliest ballad, "Family." Gregory Alan-Williams is compelling in a part generally given short shrift: Marty, Jimmy's old-fashioned, good-hearted manager, who is aced out by Curtis before masterminding Effie's revenge. The most memorable visual impression, quite rightly, is made by Detroit model Dedra Williams as the lean and leggy Deena. The small chorus, including such top-notch local singer-dancers as David Bedella, T.C. Carson, Kenny Ingram, Rob Rahn, Yvonne Gage, Kathi Ridley, Cheridah Best, and Darius de Haas, is dynamite. Gary Baugh's angular lighting design well makes up for the lack of technical flash. But Michael Keefe's conducting of the band seemed choppy and rushed, missing the right groove.

Where Candlelight's Dreamgirls really suffers is the costuming--again, perhaps, the result of not being ready for opening night, but a problem that needs to be taken care of soon. The costumes should be a key device to charting the passage of time and trends in this show, but Julie Jackson's designs are a confusing clutter of styles, tackily manufactured, and jumbledly arranged. I don't think early Pointer Sisters was the girl group Michael Bennett had in mind when he conceived Dreamgirls; I've seen drag queens in Tupelo, Mississippi, wear better gowns than these girls.

If Pullinsi and his team fix these flaws, Dreamgirls should shape up as sensational stagecraft.

It's easy to see the characters in Dreamgirls as the descendants of the Pruitt family, the central characters in Francis and Val Ward's musical, Gospel According to Soul. The Pruitts are sharecroppers in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the 1940s, who migrate to Memphis in search of a better life. Under the guidance of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Effie (could she have been the namesake for Dreamgirls's Effie? it's tempting to ask), the Pruitts are a God-fearing, gospel-singin' clan. ("Baptists are baptized in the River Jordan," proclaims Grandpa, "Catholic folk got that ole bird bath.") Family, faith, and music are the ties that bind.

When the crooked, tobacco-chewin' redneck farmer they work for starts getting a little too close to their youngest girl for comfort, the Pruitts decide to move on, though Grandma worries that the family will be torn apart by the change. But things work out--all too easily, in fact. Every conflict that's suggested by the script falls by the wayside, as the Pruitts head to the industrialized north, where they're spotted by a kindly Jewish promoter who immediately offers them a European tour.

Of the Wards' simplistic and stereotyped script, the less said the better. What makes Gospel According to Soul well worth seeing is the nearly nonstop music: traditional numbers such as "Amazing Grace," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Rock My Soul," and "Certainly, Lord," along with original tunes by the Wards. The soaring melodies and sumptuous harmonies of these glorious songs are delivered with compelling emotional involvement and directness by a large cast directed by Val Ward and musically directed by pianist Raymond Green. Everyone is superb, though especially strong impressions are made by James Lockhart and Cynthia Sledge as Grandpa and Grandma, Bernard Mixon and Beatrice Mister as their son and his wife, Kay Reed, and Chicago newcomer Joseph Parchia, a baby-faced young man with a style that starts out smooth as silk and rises rapturously to operatic tenor heights.

The Kuumba Theatre house manager warns at intermission that "there is no smoking in the theater," but he's wrong. When these folks sing, the whole theater catches fire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/D. Wicks.

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