Having the national tour of Dreamgirls kick off at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is a special event. The historic theater is celebrating its 75th year, this incredibly successful show is coming off a much-lauded film adaptation, and it happens that the opening and closing scenes of Dreamgirls take place at the Apollo. So it’s a particularly commendable gesture that the Apollo is making an outreach to the community.
The theater is offering half-price tickets for specific “community performances.” To be eligible, you need to either be a Harlem resident or work in the neighborhood. Since I just happen to be a proud SpaHa resident, I sent my roommate to the Apollo to snap up some tickets before they were all gone. Sammy said there was a good line of people at the theater, and quite a bit of curiosity from passersby as to what the line was for. She was armed with an addressed envelope, to confirm our Harlem residency, and an ID to connect her with the mail. So as to keep this as close to a typical rush experience as possible, I entrusted Sammy not to purchase any tickets over $30.
I received an elated text from Sammy exclaiming, “$18.50!!!!” Ding ding ding! Ladies and gentlemen, we have our record-lowest rush price ever – $18.50! Congratulations, Dreamgirls; let’s see how long it takes for another production to beat that. (I know what you’re thinking. Bye Bye Birdie offered $10 tickets to the first preview. But those tickets were sold way in advance and… well, I didn’t get those tickets. Leave your objections in the comments.)
The deal was a pretty generous one. Not only were our tickets incredibly cheap (they were reflective of the section—you could buy better seats for more money), but the ticket limit was high. Harlem residents could buy up to six tickets (neighborhood employees could buy up to two). Furthermore, these tickets could be bought in advance of the performance. And apparently they sold well; Sammy was told that the community performance before ours sold out.
This was my first visit to the Apollo Theater. If you haven’t been before—it’s huge! It was almost dizzying. We sat in one of the last rows of the upper balcony. We were sky high, but for $18.50, there really wasn’t anything to complain about. The fact that the Apollo made this deal available to the community is something I applaud. (Also a kind gesture is the $5 shuttle that transports quaking tourists from Times Square all the way past 86th St. to the high altitudes of Harlem. We all know that only wicked city people lurk in the subways and along 125th St.)
The generosity and the amazing deal of this rush had got me all excited for a show that was going to knock my socks off! Unfortunately, the most thrilling part of this whole Dreamgirls experience was scoring the cheap tickets. This production directed by Robert Longbottom is just a shell of a larger, fuller piece. The actors fail to evoke any depth out of their roles. I love Dreamgirls. The music and the story couldn’t be better. But this production just goes to show how in theater, if one element is weak, the entire house of cards tumbles.
Moya Angela’s voice is solid for Effie, but she doesn’t bring out any of the gut-wrenching pain that we’re used to with the portrayal of this character (do I need to make a reference to the two Hs—Holiday and Hudson?). So while she’s hitting the notes right, she doesn’t bring out the feisty, stubborn woman that Effie is supposed to be. Even though she’s the audience favorite and we side with her, Effie is an incredibly flawed character and must make a long journey through the play. Angela’s Effie seems pretty amicable from the get-go. Syesha Mercado reads for Deena. That’s right, “reads.” She fails to find Deena’s hidden depth, and everything about her performance feels boring. I remember Mercado also sounding better when she was on American Idol. Adrienne Warren as Lorrell is also a disappointment, throwing away most of her funny lines.
The women get by with their acting. It’s nothing abysmal, but it’s nothing great either. Their voices are pleasant, but don’t amaze. Shane Sparks’ choreography (mashed with Michael Bennett’s original moves) is quite engaging, and Angela, Mercado, and Warren execute it well. That combined with the excellent costumes by William Ivey Long make the Dreams a satisfactory package, but nothing that would create a music empire.
The men don’t give the women a run for their money either. Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Curtis is as dull as it gets, and with no stage presence. I forgot he was even in the show. Curtis is a complex character. He becomes a villain, but what’s important to remember is that he was a good man at the start. Shepherd doesn’t highlight any of Curtis’s early love or passion for Effie or Deena. C.C. is a tricky role, because he’s weak and complains for most of the show, but a successful portrayal will highlight his passion for songwriting. Trevon Davis just plays it whiney.
The only gem in the show is Chester Gregory, and having seen him perform previously, I wasn’t surprised. Gregory deserves this role, after an unfortunate turn of events with Shrek the Musical, and he eats up the spotlight. Casting Gregory as Jimmy Early was a no brainer. He’s animated, he’s got spunk, and he’s got a great voice (although I do think it’s strange this is his second Eddie Murphy role). Gregory is fun and wild as Jimmy. His are the only moments of the show that really get exciting. I know purists will cry foul, but I prefer the way the film handles his character’s exit (drug overdose, rather than the original stage version (a fading career exit), which remains here.
Once again, the “revolutionary trend” of video projects and screens make up nearly the entire set design. I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of substantial use of video screens—I’d rather see hand-crafted sets. But I’m not opposed to these graphical supernovas, just so long as they serve a true purpose rather than the production flexing its budgetary muscles. The five vertical panels in Dreamgirls rotate around the stage, shining background images reminiscent of the first two seasons of American Idol. Aside from the panels becoming so bright at times that I felt the luminosity burning into my retinas, they didn’t help to make any bold statements about the story. Instead, I was left curious as to what a traditional set would have looked like.
With big high heels to fill, this production of Dreamgirls falls in flats. Oh sorry, was that corny? Unfortunately, so were the portrayals in this show.