Review: Dream Supreme
'Dreamgirls' Revival Sparkles at Woodlawn Theatre
September 13, 2019 - San Antonio
Article By: Jade Esteban Estrada - Writer, SA Sentinel
Dreamgirls, a musical largely based on the intriguing story of the sixties pop group, The Supremes, is currently in production at Woodlawn Theatre.
With music by Henry Krieger (The Tap Dance Kid, Side Show) and book and lyrics by Tom Eyen (The Dirtiest Show in Town, Women Behind Bars), Dreamgirls tells the backstage tale of The Dreams, a black female group that gets their start performing in variety shows in their hometown of Chicago. With the guidance of a ruthless manager, they ultimately rise to meteoric stardom. During this ascent, they realize, each in their own time, that the price of admission to this level of international fame inevitably includes professional disappointments, romantic heartbreaks and shattered friendships.
Although the gender and racial issues that the main characters experience remain relevant, it’s the personality conflicts between the past and present Dreams that are the primary focus of the story.
The music, a unique blend of soulful R&B tunes tidily packaged in the classic Broadway formula, wraps the heavy subject matter with a distinctive bow, which was a groundbreaking feat when the show made its Broadway premiere in 1981. Recognizable songs from the score include “One Night Only,” “I Am Changing” and the show’s anthem, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
The Friday night show I attended had several praise-worthy performances, particularly from actors in supporting roles.
With classic leading-man looks and a wide vocal range, the gifted Bradley Freeman portrayed Curtis Taylor, Jr., the enterprising manager who engages in the final days of free-wheeling payola to ensure the Dreams' musical success.
Darcell Bios delivered a powerhouse performance as Jimmy “Thunder” Early, a character resembling James Brown and perhaps a smidge of Little Richard. While Bios was singing, I leaned toward my young cousin sitting next to me and whispered, "This is what Broadway feels like."
Naomi Williams Johnson plays the role of Effie White, a character likely inspired by the tragic story of Florence Ballard, the real-life ousted Supreme. Despite her character's unusually strong voice, Effie is pushed out of the group and out of her romantic relationship with Curtis, who later begins to openly date Deena Jones (LaToya Chenelle Crawford).
Dwaylan Applewhite played Effie’s songwriter brother, C.C. White. Though his operatically trained voice was richly refreshing, it did, perhaps unintentionally, put a spotlight on the lesser-trained voices in the show.
Many of the glamorous musical performances represent what audiences are supposed to only see. When The Dreams sang the title song, Rose Kennedy's magical costumes heightened the emotional impact of the show.
Happily, all of The Dreams are very talented and have excellent chemistry with one another.
Very much like Diana Ross' trajectory, Jones is promoted to lead singer of The Dreams because Curtis believes that her character’s softer, more distinct, commercial voice will help the group crossover to the mainstream charts. And herein lies a glitch in the eyes of this Michael Bennett purist. The contrast between Effie and Deena’s voices is a weighty part of the plotline. However, both Crawford and Johnson's vocals seemed to be, at times, equally strong. Ideally, Eyen’s Effie comes to the audience, whereas Deena allows the audience to come to her. The Woodlawn is blessed with a vast performance space. In the future, I hope to see more attention given to the balancing of sound levels between the music and the singers. Though Darrin Newhardt’s orchestra played exceptionally well, the moments when Crawford had the opportunity to produce a softer, sweeter croon, the sound level of her microphone was quite low. From my fourth row seat, it seemed like Deena was left with no choice but to belt in order to avoid being drowned out by the music. That being said, these circumstances did create an opportunity for me to suddenly admire this Deena for her tenacity, (okay...) strength and valorous appeal.
Janecia Stevenson, who played Lorell Robinson aka the reliable Dream, was perfectly cast as the quintessential performer coming of age in the music industry. Content to be in Deena’s shadow, she finds herself only wishing to get married to the already married Jimmy. For the interested: A deeper understanding of what Lorell's life might have been like can be found in Mary Wilson's 1986 book Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.
Navigating through the frustration, jealousy, and rage that surrounds her, Michelle Morris (Amanda Jeffries) could best be described as the adult in the room. As the replacement Dream, she anchors the collective dynamic and, by her mere existence, serves as a reminder that the show must go on. Jeffries' interpretation of Michelle was outstanding.
Between dancing, singing and playing multiple roles, the ensemble was kept busy on all points of Ben Grabill's towering set, which appropriately provided the feel of a gritty, backstage environment. And with absolute fluidity, Matt Smith’s lighting design added an emotional depth to many of the pivotal scenes.
Doriana James, who recently starred in Ride: The Musical at the Overtime Theatre, was fabulous as the talent show emcee while Myles Harris executed his featured dance solos with noticeable skill. The buoyant energy that Danica McKinney (Heathers) continuously brings to the stage is a valuable asset to any production.
The appearance of Seth Basinger, Paige Kromer and Sarah Davis as Dave and the Sweethearts, a group of white pop singers who perform a saccharin-infused cover of “Cadillac Car,” is one of the most important scenes in this musical because it sets up a cultural disparity and paints a grim image of the struggle endured by African-American entertainers of the era. In this scene, I clocked some familiar faces. The talented Basinger recently gave a memorable performance as the Artful Dodger in the recent production of Oliver! at Northwest Vista College and Davis, who was seen dancing in Oklahoma! and In the Heights earlier this year, could be hailed as one of the hardest-working chorus performers in San Antonio.
Director Tim Hedgepeth and choreographer Michelle Pietri brought their signature style to this long-awaited production, while still honoring Bennett’s artistic intent. Hedgepeth's heartfelt director's notes are worth the read.
According to the Woodlawn's Facebook page, cast members for this show were selected through Dream Search SA, a local talent competition which conducted their fourth round of auditions in front of an audience. The Renaissance Guild also partnered on the project.
Like Porgy and Bess and Raisin in the Sun, Dreamgirls remains a classic of American theatre because it reminds us of who we used to be and perhaps also inspires us to seek, like Effie, a more authentic version of ourselves.
It is my hope that the Woodlawn will continue to produce shows with a mostly black cast so they can further activate the local black theatre community, and so San Antonio audiences can enjoy more diverse theatre with greater consistency.
Judging by the sold out performance that I attended, the community interest for such diversity is certainly present.
If you go:
August 23 - Sept. 15, 2019
7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
3 p.m. Sunday
1920 Fredericksburg Road
San Antonio, Texas 78201
General admission: $18-$30
Box office: 210-267-8388
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Cast and Credits
Deena Jones: LaToya Chenelle Crawford
Lorell Robinson: Janecia Stevenson
Effie Melody White: Naomi Williams Johnson
Michelle Morris: Amanda Jeffries
Curtis Taylor, Jr.: Bradley Freeman
Marty Madison: Edward Burkley
James “Thunder” Early: Darcell Bios
C.C. White: Dwaylan Applewhite
Ensemble: Candance Battle
Ensemble: Danica McKinney
Ensemble: Jessica Winston
Ensemble: Dorianna James
Ensemble: Lyric Smith
Ensemble: Jessica Willis
Ensemble: Andrea Hardeman
Ensemble: Regina Burpo
Ensemble: Katrice Buchanan
Ensemble: Paige Kromer
Ensemble: Sarah Davis
Ensemble: Jacoby Johnson
Ensemble: Jeremiah Jordan
Ensemble: Myles Harris
Ensemble: John Bonner
Ensemble: Courtney Davis
Ensemble: Seth Basinger
Ensemble: AJ Hardeman
Piano/Conductor: Darrin Newhardt
Keys 2: Chris Fuglestad
Bass: Kevin Resnover
Drums: Sarek Gutierrez
Guitar: Carlos Galvan
Trumpet: Jon Rickman
Winds 1: Larry Loden
Winds 2: Aissa Maese
Trombone: Laine Lee
Book and Lyrics: Tom Eyen
Music: Henry Krieger
Direction and choreography of original Broadway production: Michael Bennett
Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler
Direction: Tim Hedgepeth
Musical Direction: Darrin Newhardt
Choreography: Michelle Pietri
Stage Manager: Katie Benson
Dance Captain: Lyric Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Aundria Nuncio
Spotlight Operators: Wendy McNiel
Spotlight Operator: Nicholas Carpenter
Backstage Crew: Becka Morton
Backstage Crew: Sirena Sierra
Set Design: Benjamin Grabill
Sound Design: Ben Farrar
Scenic Artist: Chris Rutz
Costume Design: Rose Kennedy
Lighting Design: Matt Smith
Wig Design: Ron Hammett