Dreamgirls is one of those rare musicals with which I’m not massively familiar: I’ve watched the film version but that’s about it. Better known in the US – opening on Broadway in 1981, it played for nearly four years and won several Tonys – the musical didn’t come to Britain until its 2016 run in the West End. Now that Olivier-winning production is touring, currently playing in the Wales Millennium Centre.
The Dreams (later Deena Jones And The Dreams) are a soul girl group, rising up through the charts and the – musically and historically – revolutionary 1960s. Act II sees them having risen to one of the most successful girl groups in the country, but to the detriment of friendship. Famously based on successful soul and R&B acts such as The Supremes, The Shirelles and James Brown, audiences have likened the storyline to the real biography of Diana Ross.
Nicole Raquel Dennis is phenomenal as Effie White. Her performance is magnetic: you can’t take your eyes off her even when she’s not the focus of the scene, although her character arc ensures a consistently pivotal presence. She is missed from the start of the second act, although not to the detriment of the other actors – you simply want to see what’s happened to her character – and her big song, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, will give you chills. Never mind the fact that Effie is a bit abrasive, indeed a total diva – we want her to come out on top.
Of the other Dreams, Paige Peddie’s Lorrell Robinson – ‘the funny one’, if not overtly hilarious – is a standout. Of Dreamgirls’ male characters, Dom Hartley-Harris is suitably unlikeable as Curtis Taylor Jr, the manager/husband and former car salesman; Shem Omari James is sweet as C.C. White, songwriter and brother of Effie.
Brandon Lee Sears, as Jimmy “Thunder” Early, sticks longest in the mind: his character goes from an energetic composite of James Brown and Little Richard to the slightly tragic figure whose star is fading as the girls’ rises. It’s a shame the show ends with this character on a down note: we want to know what happens to him.
The live orchestra really sells the soul/R&B of the show, while retaining the Broadway/West End feel. Lighting, set and costume design take us from the beginnings at The Apollo, through convincingly recreated 60s music television, through to the Las Vegas of the following decade. Dreamgirls might be 40 years old, but it doesn’t feel like it – the music it pays homage to is timeless. Deeper down, it’s 2022 and a near-complete cast of people of colour is still not common to see. Its spoofs of white artists’ covers of Black music are both astute and amusing, but the musical has much to say about racial equality.
Dreamgirls is an emotional rollercoaster of a musical – at once a modern and retro show, with some outstanding performances. It’s at the WMC in Cardiff Bay until the end of the month, not just One Night Only, so you’ve no excuse if you miss it.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Tue 19 Apr
Running until Sat 30 Apr. Tickets: £17.50-£77. Info: here
words CHRIS WILLIAMS
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