Saturday 19th November 2016 marked the first night of previews for the first ever West End production of Dreamgirls. This musical follows the journey of an all female African-American singing group and their attempt to find fame in the US Music Industry during the 60s and 70s. Although I have mixed feelings about seeing preview performances, I found myself with two front row tickets for the night and could not turn down the opportunity. I was impressed by how slick the show was for its first night; the big set and costume changes went smoothly and there were no obvious mishaps. However as the show is not locked down yet, I will give my quick first thoughts now, but intend to re-visit it after the show officially opens in December.
What did I like?
Amber Riley of ‘Glee’ fame is making her West End debut playing the lead role of Effie White. It was a delight to see her in a role which showcases her impressive vocal range and power. I was clearly not alone in my admiration for Amber as the whole house leapt to their feet multiple times during her big numbers including ‘And I am Telling You’. I have never seen such a stirring response from an audience for a relatively unknown performer on the West End stage. At first I was unsure as to whether she could convincingly portray this notoriously feisty yet vulnerable character, but she definitely worked to erase that doubt and made the role her own. What she will have to prove next is whether she has the chops to continue playing this challenging and vocally demanding role for seven performances a week. Another standout performer was Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early, the wild and unruly soul singer. There was something so magnetic about his presence, that my eyes were immediately drawn to him whenever he was on stage. In one number he repeatedly sings ‘Jimmy got soul’ – and yes this guy most certainly does.
What didn’t work for me?
I have only ever seen the 2006 film version of Dreamgirls and was not entirely sure how faithful the film was to the original musical. On the surface, there are obvious differences; the stage version features songs which I hadn’t heard before like ‘Ain’t No Party’ (brilliantly delivered by Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell). But there are wonderful songs included in the film such as ‘Love You I Do’ and ‘Patience’ which are absent from the musical. I must admit I felt a tinge of disappointment when I wasn’t treated to a version of ‘Listen’ as popularised by Beyonce. Instead, it was a female empowerment song between the two leads, which didn’t quite work for me.
But I think the biggest difference was in the tone. In the film, I felt a clear sense of where the story was placed in history and an idea of the politics around black performers trying to climb the American charts during a time of segregation. But in the musical, I didn’t feel the story was grounded during a particularly difficult time for African-American performers and so didn’t connect with the characters and their journeys as much. However at this stage, my views are not set. I’ve learnt that a few tweaks to the show during previews may completely change my experience. So overall I’m feeling fairly positive about Dreamgirls and look forward to revisiting it soon.