“Dreamgirls,” the 1981 Motown musical by Henry Krieger and Tom Ewen which became the 2006 hit movie that made Jennifer Hudson (Effie) a star and garnered Eddie Murphy a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as James “Thunder” Early, a character based on James Brown blew into the Windy City on Tuesday, January 12th for a mere two-week run. As I write this on Saturday, January 23, the play has a very short life in town left and will be gone before it can be appreciated as the best show Broadway in Chicago has mounted this season…so far (and there’s only one left, “101 Dalmations.”)
The play began at the Apollo Theater last fall, where it received rave reviews and there is buzz that it might have a full-on Broadway opening after the tour, which includes a month in Tokyo. The production “stars” Syesha Mercado in the movie’s Beyonce role as Deena Jones, said to be based on Diana Ross. The Supremes who back her up are played, first, by Moya Angela as Effie, the role that Jennifer Hudson took all the way to Oscar gold, and then byAdrienne Warren as Lorrell Robinson and Margaret Hoffman as Michelle Morris, the later “Dream” girls (after Effie is replaced).
In the movie, Jennnifer Hudson took the “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” song and belted it impressively, but Moya Angela is no less impressive. Her voice is impressive: massive and worthy of the starring role she portrays. Syesha Mercado’s stint as Deena Jones is good, also. After all, the singer was second runner-up in the 2007 “American Idol” tryouts, and, a graduate of the theater program of Florida International University, she received the prestigious South Eastern Theatre Conference’s Best Supporting Actress award even before that.
Deserving of special mention are the two male leads: Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Curtis Taylor and Chester Gregory, a Chicago native, in the Eddie Murphy role as James “Thunder” Early. Shepherd appears onstage more than any other actor, tying the entire plot together and he both acts and sings extremely well. He has appeared as Harpo on Broadway in “The Color Purple” and was on the Billboard charts 3 times in 2009. His soul/R&B album is to be released during the “Dreamgirls” tour. His gospel work was Grammy nominated in 2009.
The crowd favorite amongst the male leads, much as in the movie, has to be Chester Gregory, a graduate of Columbia College (BFA) who got his start at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater playing Jackie Wilson, courtesy of Jackie Taylor of that ensemble. Said Ms. Taylor, in a Chicago Tribune interview on Sunday, January 17, “I had been wanting to produce the Jackie Wilson story for a long time, but I always felt like I didn’t have a strong enough Wilson. This was going to be a ride specifically for Chester.”
And what a ride it was! It took Chester Gregory (he has now dropped the II from his name) all the way to New York’s Apollo Theater, where he made enough of a mark, complete with a Wilson-like back-flip while onstage, that he has picked up work ever since with parts in “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Tarzan,” and performing for Michael Jackson. In fall, 2011, Gregory has promised to reprise his star-making role as Jackie Wilson for his “theatrical mother” Jackie Taylor at the opening of the Black Ensemble Theater’s new North Side home. The play was the most popular and profitable the Black Ensemble has ever put on.
For his role as the womanizing James Brown-like James “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls” Chester Gregory gets the most memorable stage time (along with the part of Effie) if not the greatest amount of it. Manager Curtis Taylor, Jr., tries hard to tone down the soul brother, so that, at one point, the unhappy singer says, “Last time I was here three people thought I was Tony Bennett.” It’s Curtis’ plan to break the black acts into the Big Time, and he wants James to tone it down and behave because it’s hard to book black acts into places like Miami in the sixties. As one character says, “That place is so white they don’t even let our boys park the cars.”
Chester Gregory makes the most of his time onstage. At one point, he sticks the microphone into the front of his pants, and there is the famous scene (also in the movie) where he drops trou while playing a chi chi white club, causing Curtis to fire him and tell him, “Your time has passed.”
The character of Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) is described at various points as a “two-bit car salesman” and he certainly seems to be a huckster (called a “second class snake” by Marty, Jimmy Early’s first manager) who will woo whomever he must to get his way. However, Curtis does seem to have idealized and idolized Deena (Syesha Mercado), who eventually becomes his wife, as he sings to her, “I needed a dream but it all seemed to go bad. You were the only reason I had to go on. You are the things I can never be. They’ll never take my dreams from me.” Unfortunately, as Deena (Syesha Mercado) tells him, “I want to be an artist,” most specifically a film star. Curtis says, “You’ll do what I tell you.” Deena (Syesha Mercado) says, to Effie, in a scene of reconciliation, “I played the role he gave to me. Now I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.”
Special mention should be made of the singing, of course, but the dancing and costumes are just as outstanding. William Ivey Long did the costume design and the sparkly lavish costumes rival anything the real Dreamgirls (i.e., the Supremes) ever wore. There is even one very creative costume change (for Effie) that takes place while she is singing about changing, onstage. The spotlight focuses to just Effie’s (Moya Angela’s) face and, in a heartbeat, she emerges from “everyday” clothes she is singing in for an audition and is now clad in a lavender sparkly gown.
This was by far the best play of the series, so far, beating “In the Heights” by a mile and “Young Frankenstein” by a nose. I also liked it better than “The Addams Family,” which is supposed to take Broadway by storm. It’s just a shame that “Dreamgirls” is leaving Chicago so soon, as it definitely is worth Broadway theater ticket prices, with energy and talent to burn.