Dreamgirls has finally made its way to Australia!
StageArt Production Company are the first to bring the smash hit musical to Melbourne audiences at Chapel Off Chapel and fans will be happy to hear that it features the show-stopping sequences, dazzling costumes and powerful songs made famous by the 2006 film. Executive producers Katherine Armstrong and Robbie Carmellotti previously partnered up for In The Heights, another exclusive Australian premiere. It seems StageArt are continuing the trend of selecting musicals that are otherwise overlooked when it comes to commercial appeal, and we’re not complaining.
Dreamgirls is a story based on the life of Diana Ross and The Supremes, recounting their early years up until their farewell performance as a group. In the show, they call themselves The Dreamettes, which is later changed to The Dreams. We see Effie White (Thando Sikwila), Deena Jones (Anna Francesca Armenia) and Lorrell Robinson (Zenya Carmellotti) start off as talented young hopefuls who later grow into a superstar pop vocal group. Their journey takes place in 1960s Chicago and ends around the late 1970s in New York, where they come to learn all the misfortunes that come with being a ‘product’ of the music industry (not to mention at a time where segregation still exists). The three girls (along with Michelle, who is the fourth member played by Sharon Wills) share a chemistry that is enjoyable to watch. The era-inspired costumes, hair and makeup were a visual delight (there must have been at least 15 changes!), along with the choreography, which ranged from classy and upbeat to sexy and sultry as the years continued. They performed with a maturity and confidence well beyond their years. The only thing lacking between The Dreams was the vocal chemistry. At times, each girl tended to overpower another rather than blend in harmony. Nevertheless, they performed with an energy that was more than enough to keep us entertained.
At the helm of the show is Effie White, who despite being the best singer, is pushed to the back because of her appearance. In this show, Effie is played by Thando Sikwila, who charmed us last year in The Voice Australia and does so on a bigger scale in Dreamgirls. Her vocal range, power and emotion cuts through and resonates in your ears; it’s almost as if she were born to play the role. Emotions ran high as she belted out ‘And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going)’ as well as ‘One Night Only’. The disco version of ‘One Night Only’ by Deena and The Dreams was also a high point in the show; there was enough 60s glitz, glam and attitude from the girls that proved they had really grown up (although it was slightly maddening to know they had stolen Effie’s ballad). Other notable performances include Gareth Jacobs as Jimmy Early, Djon Alexander as C.C. (Effie’s brother) and Winston Hillyer as Curtis Taylor Jr., all of whom had the vocal chops suited to their roles. The ensemble were a standout, performing with such passion in every scene.
As an avid fan of the film, I’ll admit it was hard to not make comparisons. I later found out that the stage show preceded the film, which goes to show the impact of the Hollywood film industry. However, the actors – the leads especially – made each role their own and performed with ease, unintimidated or worried about comparisons to Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx or Eddie Murphy. The only thing that needs a little polishing is the overall consistency, especially the slipping American to Australian accents throughout the show.
The band were excellent, and was special to be able to see them through a sheer curtain separating the stage into front and back halves. However, the limited theatre space made for some abrupt transitioning between scenes that impacted on the pacing and timeline of the story. However, the character performances are surely more vital to the story than the set design or props, and attributed to the essence of the show. Some scenes were not as fine-tuned as others – perhaps it was because of the staging, or sometimes the lack of chemistry between characters – however it is no doubt that the individual performances are impressive, especially as a majority of the cast are visibly younger than the roles they portrayed. It takes rare talent to be able to play characters that have lived a life well beyond their years.
It was an absolute pleasure to see a culturally diverse cast of individuals on one stage, especially in a musical that celebrates representation and self-love no matter how you look. I applaud StageArt for giving non-Caucasian performers chance to shine and a chance to represent the wonderful, multicultural city of Melbourne.
All in all, Dreamgirls is a charming effort that leaves you smiling at the end, and most likely as part of a standing ovation.