When A Chorus Line first splashed onto the Broadway stage in 1975, its creator, Michael Bennett, was routinely hailed as a genius, an innovator, and the best and brightest choreographer on the American musical scene. Some even felt that he was heaven-sent.
At the heart of his more successful shows was Bennett's expression of love and admiration for performers. It was not simply a theme, it was a cause that consumed him, even in the last few days before his untimely death from AIDS in 1987. Despite his failing health, he continued to fight for his art form, joining forces with Mikhail Baryshnikov and others to preserve the unique rehearsal and performance space at 890 Broadway in New York City. It was a struggle that epitomized Bennett's quest to sustain art while realizing that it needed to do business in order to survive.
Fittingly, that's the subject of Bennett's Dreamgirls, a 1981 Broadway hit that chronicles a Supremes-like singing group's rise to stardom in the hard-edged world of pop music. A satisfactory revival of the musical, billed as a "national tour prior to Broadway," is currently playing downtown at the Buell Theatre under the direction of Tony Stevens, who has also re-created the original Bennett choreography.
This is a pre-spectacle musical--there are no helicopters or swinging chandeliers to augment its candid examination of Motown's talent and money--and it has some difficulty projecting itself into the giant sepulchre that the Buell becomes when any show with minimal sets visits there. Sixteen years ago the use of abstract, suggestive decor might have been considered cutting-edge, but in this age of sensory overindulgence, Dreamgirls nearly dies a quick death when played on an all-but-empty stage. Nonetheless, owing to a talented cast, lavish costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, clever choreography, a catchy score (music by Harvey Krieger, book and lyrics by Tom Eyen) and, most of all, a believable plot to hold our interest, the musical drives beyond its anachronistic shortcomings to win our hearts.
Several exuberant performers (most of them thanking God in their program bios) strut their stuff throughout the nearly three-hour evening, evoking memories of Motown favorites such as the Jackson 5 (complete with foot-high Afros, platform shoes and wide lapels) and the Temptations. But the evening belongs to a small group of gifted actresses whose passionate singing is what most in the audience have come to hear. Their admirable portrayals transcend pop-culture subjects to address themes with which anyone can identify: Who among us doesn't encounter obstacles to our dreams, professional and otherwise?
LaTanya Hall, a former Miss Colorado, plays Deena Jones (modeled after Diana Ross, hairstyles and all), gracefully moving about the stage as a star performer while remaining rooted in her down-to-earth humanity. As Effie White, the singer who's fired from the group only to get her act together later on (paralleling the fall and then rise of ex-Supreme Florence Ballard), Roz White electrified the near-capacity crowd on opening night. In the show's climactic scene, she earned cheers as she sang "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," perhaps the musical's most famous melody. While performing the ballad, her movements resembled those made famous by John Belushi's parody of Joe Cocker, but the gutsy actress rose above that unfortunate display to remain an audience favorite for the rest of the show.
Dreamgirls seems a little dated these days, but its message isn't. Dreams cost more to turn into reality now, just like everything else (a point not lost on David Geffen, an original producer of the show and one of three founders of the Hollywood entertainment factory Dreamworks SKG). But all creativity begins with a dream, and that, the show says, is what it's all about. Somewhere, Michael Bennett is saying "amen" to it all.
Dreamgirls, through November 23 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100 or 830-