By Ian Rigg
“Yes, like books and Black lives, albums still matter.” We just said, “Goodnight, sweet Prince,” and Prince said what needed to be said. He paved a path in popular music, altering it forever, and he stood on the shoulders of giants who paved a path for him. We live in tumultuous times, and in an equally tumultuous time, in a shameful but not-too distant era, phenomenal artists were kept off the pop charts simply because of the color of their skin.
Dreamgirls tells the tale of three terrific black artists breaking down that wicked wall with sheer talent and sheer force of will, with the help and hindrance of their ambitious but avaricious manager. Porchlight’s phenomenal production is electrifying, excellent and makes dead sure that Black lives and albums matter.
Director/Choreographer Brenda Didier is a proper hitmaker. Under her capable watch, the production flows like the best of albums. Every dance move is in sync and in style, and every emotional beat shines, as if she were a music producer deftly mixing each channel.
Her partner in the metaphorical recording studio is Music Director Doug Peck. Under his guidance, the cast’s technique is equal to the tenacity of their emotion, giving audiences the best of both worlds as they hear the holy harmonies.
Like any great album, there’s a terrific team behind the scenes. The scenic design of Jeff Kmiec and Greg Pinsoneault may seem stripped-down, but its genius lies in its sleek utilization and the layers it is adorned with. Denise Karczewski’s kinetic, kaleidoscopic lighting design plays perfectly off of the steel, stealing the show in its own right by creating a myriad of moods and moments. Costume designer Bill Morey and wig designer Kevin Barthel deserve every bit of praise coming their way. The clothes encompass two entire eras and evoke each character perfectly. Something could be said of the sheer number of costumes alone, let alone their period accuracy or coordinating a whole cast of costumes (the multitude of matching ensembles for The Dreams alone must have been daunting).
Stage manager Sara Gammage and crew preside over the swift changes between each set position and each outstanding outfit. And while in a few moments the great and grooving pit could be a pinch overpowering, it’s a testament to their zeal and musical capability.
This musical fires on all cylinders, and driving it are the amazing actors. This cast is off the charts, a bona fide buffet of talent. The power and dexterity of their voices is as inspiring as the gradual transformations each actor takes their character through. The portrayals are nuanced, and it’s a wonder to watch the layers peel out as applause peels out of the audience.
Candace C. Edwards is a delight as Deena Jones. With soaring voice, it’s lovely to watch her scale it back in the beginning and slowly come to the fore as she becomes the group’s new lead singer, mounting ego and later disillusion to match. Lorell Robinson, in the capable hands of Katherine Thomas, is Minnie Riperton on steroids. Her notes float effortlessly and sting so sweetly. Thomas takes her character on quite the journey, beginning the show as a demure and doting young lady, and ending as a powerful woman somewhere else in life entirely, deftly playing the peacemaker with a sense of humor throughout.
Evan Tyrone Martin is excellent as the multi-faceted manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. With a velveteen voice reminiscent of the Ink Spots and a cold calculating manner reminiscent of Gordon Gekko, it is a wonder to watch his descent from good intention to greed, from charming car salesman to capricious controller. He uses the tactics of the machine to obtain fame and fortune for his clients, yet he becomes the machine he attempted to subvert. Eric Lewis is an absolute dynamo as Jimmy Early, a loud livewire forced to turn lounge singer, bombastic energy masking his fear of being washed up at every turn. He is astounding and acrobatic, pulling cartwheels and splits galore, and his tremendous voice is as astonishing as the endless supply of energy he’s able to summon. It is abundantly clear Lewis is having the time of his life with this role, and he’ll give the audience theirs (particularly as he gyrates his hips right in a few lucky faces).
Gilbert Domally shines as composer C.C. White, who struggles with a crisis of conscience as he’s forced to choose between stardom and his sister, and is as wonderful a soloist as he is a part-singer. J. Michael Jones is the beleaguered manager Marty, who is at his best in his intense ideological debates with snake salesman Curtis. Kyrie Courter is lovely as Michelle, Effie White’s replacement. The show stuns right down to each ensemble member. In one of the show’s comedic yet repugnantly poignant moments, the capable Caleb Baze descends the staircase singing a homogenized, stolen and sterile rendition of Jimmy & the Dreamettes’ first hit, “Cadillac Car.” It’s the perfect tone to call out the practice of white musicians stealing Black music and appropriating it for their own success, with an argyle sweater and corny smile to match.
The show is no contest, and yet somehow, in a seemingly insurmountable feat, one performer manages to reign supreme, a phenomenal photo-finish. Dreamgirls is an iconic show, constituted of nothing but show-stopping numbers, yet audiences eagerly await one unforgettable song: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Donica Lynn is utterly unforgettable. She embodies Effie White with no holds barred. She sings not with her vocal chords, but with her heartstrings. Real tears rain down her cheeks. She is a true titan, and you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love her.
Porchlight’s remarkably rousing rendition of Dreamgirls reminds us that times can be tumultuous, but they can be terrific. Amazed audiences will exit the theater to a better (if less lively) world than the one they just witnessed, where the artists who inspired the show long since smashed the segregation in the charts, and Harriet Tubman will be on the 20 dollar bill. And while the conversation continues about diversity in Chicago casting, this outstanding crew is a testament that theatre is at its most terrific when it embraces actors of all colors and creeds. We’ve got so far to go, but Dreamgirls reminds us that “All you’ve got to do is dream, baby!” They’ll be there.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Dreamgirls” through May 22 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Regular performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, with added performances May 5, 12 and 19 at 1:30 pm and May 8 at 7 pm. More information and tickets are available by phone at (773) 327-5252 or online here.