It has taken 35 years from its Broadway opening (where it scooped six Tony Awards) for Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s powerhouse of a musical to finally get to the West End, a decade after the Oscar-winning movie adaptation with a Grammy-winning soundtrack.
Thanks to the deft touch of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, The Book of Mormon), it feels as fresh and vibrant as if it were written yesterday, with a sparkle and pizzazz overload that just screams West End show.
The thinly disguised story of the Supremes, it follows the fortunes of wide-eyed African-American female singing group the Dreams, who move from singing back-up for James Brown clone Jimmy Early (Adam J Bernard) to superstardom in their own right, thanks mainly to the turbo-charged vocals of Effie White (Glee star Amber Riley making her West End debut).
Adam J Bernard, Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in Dreamgirls
But this is a time when black music isn’t accepted into the mainstream and success in the soul and R&B charts doesn’t cross over to the national hit parade. For the Dreams ruthless manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Joe Aaron Reid), it’s success at any cost. Realising he must harness the power of television to take the girls to the next level, he sidelines Effie in favour of the more camera-friendly Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) — a decision made with an eye to body shape rather than vocal prowess. Dissension in the ranks follows, unsurprisingly.
Add to that romantic complications, and the glitz and glamour of the girls’ rise to the top hides a whole load of heartache. It skips pretty rapidly through the girls’ career and you’ll know how things are going to pan out pretty early on, but that won’t stop you getting caught up in the whole affair. And I defy you to not have a lump in your throat come the end.
With a few notable exceptions, the songs are functional rather than showstoppers, but vocals all round are pretty faultless. It says much for the other members of the Dreams — LaFontaine, Lily Frazer and Jocasta Almgill (standing in for Ibinabo Jack on the night I went) — that they make their mark alongside the astonishing singing of White. This really is her show and she possesses a set of pipes that threaten to lift the roof off the theatre on several occasions.
Dreamgirls makes no excuse for being big, bright and revelling in its own sparkle and glamour, with slick routines and a momentum that’s like riding a rollercoaster. But within that there are moments of genuine poignancy and a willingness to affectionately send up the genre it’s celebrating. And it’s that nod-and-a-wink attitude that makes it such a thoroughly entertaining show.
Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre until October 2017