Theatre Review & News: “Dreamgirls,” “Cats,” & “Wicked” from Broadway Across America

I saw the final Indianapolis performance in Broadway Across America’s tour of “Dreamgirls.”  It was at the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre on Sunday evening, November 6, 2010.

I had a wonderful time.  I want to record here some of the things I loved most about this show, but I also want to record how bereft I felt when I went to the souvenir stand in the lobby after the show.  The person working it told me that “there is no full-cast recording of this show and there never will be.  It closes on December 26 in Detroit and after that, the sets are going to Africa.”

I know that every show’s run has to end some time.  In fact, one of the things I usually love most about live theatre is that it is like cherry blossoms: you can’t waste a lot of time trying to capture or record their beauty because then you’ll miss it.  You have to make time to stop and enjoy it, and then you have to let it go.  It is fleeting, ephemeral, precious…like life.

But still…I am sad that this revival, which, okay, maybe has some problems but also has a lot of heart, will not be going on to Broadway.

Below are a few of my thoughts on the show, followed by information about Broadway Across America’s next two Indianapolis shows: “Cats,” which will only be at Clowes Hall for a nano-second (one weekend only, at the end of this month) and “Wicked,” which will be at the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre from December 15, 2010 – January 1, 2011.

(Chaz Lamar Shepherd (Curtis) and Moya Angela (Effie) – photo by Joan Marcus.)

What “Dreamgirls” Is About

An African-American group of girl singers in the 1950s gets a shady manager that propels them to stardom, but it is at the expense of their lead singer, Effie White, and at the expense of the relationships among all of the women.

The show is about the importance of having dreams and staying true to yourself, especially when you can not always control what society or your loved ones do or what they want from you.

Artistic Considerations

I went in feeling particularly interested in Moya Angela, the woman that plays Effie White.  She is originally from Indianapolis and I had thought I might get a chance to interview her while she was back in town.  That didn’t work out, but I enjoyed reading about her ahead of time anyway.

During the show, she blew the roof off with her rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the end of Act One.  That is the first time I have ever shot to my feet to applaud and cheer in the middle of a show.  I threw my arms up like a football fan calling a touchdown.  I felt a little foolish afterwards, but what the heck.  As the woman behind me said to her companion when the lights came up for intermission, “That was so raw and wonderful!”

Moya’s complex portrayal of Effie during quieter moments resonated strongly with me, too.  After Effie bows to pressure and steps down as lead singer of the Dreamgirls, and then gets kicked out of the group completely, she goes through some very hard times.  I loved the way that Moya showed how a person can get used to whining and throwing fits because she is used to thinking no one is going to treat her needs as important.  Effie reaches a point where that is all she is doing: she is using her resentment as an excuse for not answering her calling in life.  Moya has acting chops as well as a powerhouse voice.  I hope I get to see her on stage again some day.

I cried during the “Listen” duet that Effie and Deena (the more physically fashionable woman that takes over as lead of the Dreamgirls group under manager Curtis Taylor, Jr.’s urging) sing in Act Two.  Deena (Syesha Mercado) has finally wizened up about Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), now her husband, and realized that she has some unfulfilled dreams of her own to pursue.  The two women may never be close friends again, but in this song, the healing that occurs is very moving.

There are a lot of talented men in this show, but I especially loved the high (HIGH!) energy singing, dancing, and comedy of Chester Gregory, who plays James “Thunder” Early.  The Dreamgirls sing back-up for James at first and he remains entwined in their lives over the years.  Chester gives the character a complexity that is very engaging:  James is hilarious and powerfully creative but ultimately too weak to be the man that Lorrell Robinson (Adrienne Warren) – one of the other Dreamgirls – needs him to be.

In terms of the theatrical razzle-dazzle (and this is a show that literally dazzles with bright lights for much of the time!) my favorite element was the dancing and special effects in a song called “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.”  The dancers with their brief cases move in patterns that are like synchronized swimming in an urban river and the huge screens behind them (I think they are called jumbutrons?) replicate the patterns like a kaleidoscope.  The whole number is very cool.

I also loved that this particular performance was interpreted into American Sign Language by Joyce Ettinger and another interpretor.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This is a show for adults that like their musicals to be big, bright, and loud, with rage and frustration mixed in with the love and tenderness.

It is also a show for adults that are interested in the history of African American music.  I laughed out loud at the point when Effie’s composer brother, C.C. White (Trevon Davis), has a hit song called “Cadillac” that gets watered down and re-recorded by a white singer – the contrast between the two versions was just so funny.  However, I stopped laughing when C.C. or one of the other men complains angrily about many African-American songs being stolen by white performers and there is nothing the original artists can do about it.  Elvis wasn’t the first to record “Hound Dog,” for example.

I had never seen any version of “Dreamgirls” before – not the earlier stage shows nor the movie – so I can’t say anything about how this one compares.  ‘Sorry!  Instead, I’ll refer you to Lou Harry’s review in the Indianapolis Business Journal:

http://www.ibj.com/lou-harrys-ae/2010/11/04/review-dreamgirls-national-tour/PARAMS/post/23271

and Rita Kohn’s review in Nuvo (she saw it with Moya Angela’s stand-in, Patrice Covington):

http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/review-dreamgirls/Content?oid=1812510

and Amy Bartner’s review in the Indianapolis Star:

http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=201011030373

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Up Next from Broadway Across America:  “Cats,” then “Wicked”

I haven’t seen either of these productions, of course, but I can tell you that both shows in general are very satisfying evenings of musical theatre.

(Photo above c2008 G CREATIVE)

And hey!  When I go to my secret link for Broadway Across America’s season-long media kit I see that someone has very recently updated the “Cats” file with a recording of the “Jellicle Cats” song to go with the publicity photos and press release!  How fun is that!  I am very sorry that I don’t know how to add the song to my blog so that you can hear it.

But here are several “Fun Facts” about the show:

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FUN FACTS

Cats is the longest continuously running touring show in U.S. history

Cats was the longest running musical ever in both London and New York (closed September 10, 2000)

Since its opening, Cats has been presented in 26 countries and over 300 cities

Cats has been translated into 10 languages

Cats is the largest single generator of jobs in Broadway history

Cats had a total economic impact of $3.12 billion on the city of New York

For the Broadway opening, the Winter Garden Theatre was gutted and the roof replaced to accommodate Grizabella’s trip to the Heaviside Layer

The set of Cats consists of 2,500 oversized props

T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, contributed the unpublished material about Grizabella that was the basis for Cats’ most famous song, “Memory”

Three writers tried to set words to the music for “Memory” before Trevor Nunn (the show’s director) wrote the lyrics himself

“Memory” has been recorded by over 150 artists, from Barbra Streisand to Johnny Mathis to Liberace.  Barry Manilow’s rendition was a Top 40 hit in the U.S.

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I love it when a media kit includes “fun facts.”  The “Cats” kit also has some creative team bios, a synopsis, a song list, and more, but this post is already very long, so I will just add that Broadway Across America’s website is www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com/Indianapolis, Clowes Memorial Hall’s website is http://www.cloweshall.org/ and the official show website for “Cats” is www.catsontour.com.

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(Vicki Noon and Natalie Daradich in “Wicked” – photo by Joan Marcus.)

Here is most of the press release about “Wicked”:

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Indianapolis – After breaking box office records and selling out in record time last year, WICKED, Broadway’s biggest blockbuster, will return to Indianapolis’ Murat Theatre at Old National Centre December 15-January 1.  Tickets for the return engagement go on sale Friday, October 15.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Academy Award-winner for Pocahontas and The Prince of Egypt) and book by Winnie Holzman (“My So Called Life,” “Once And Again” and “thirtysomething”), WICKED, the untold story of the witches of Oz, is directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Love! Valour! Compassion!, The Vagina Monologues) and features musical staging by Tony® Award winner Wayne Cilento (Aida, The Who’s Tommy, How To Succeed…).

Based on the best-selling 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire, WICKED, winner of 35 major awards, including a Grammy® and three Tony® Awards, is the untold story of the witches of Oz.  It is produced by Marc Platt, Universal Pictures, The Araca Group, Jon B. Platt and David Stone.

WICKED will play the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre December 15-January 1.  Tickets will go on sale to the public October 15 and will be available beginning at 6 a.m. online ONLY at ticketmaster.com/wicked and broadwayacrossamerica.com.  Tickets will be available for sale in person at the Murat Box Office, Clowes Hall Box Office and Broadway Across America office (342 Massachusetts Ave) and by phone at 800-982-2787, beginning at 10 a.m.

WICKED‘s popularity crosses nearly every demographic. We get requests for it daily, so it’s very rewarding to bring it back to Indianapolis so quickly,” says Leslie Broecker, Broadway Across America Midwest President.  “WICKED will bring thousands of people downtown during the holiday season.  The economic impact of this touring production will contribute to a very ‘green’ season for downtown merchants, restaurants and the local production crew.”

Long before Dorothy drops in, two other girls meet in the Land of Oz.  One – born with emerald-green skin – is smart, fiery and misunderstood.  The other is beautiful, ambitious and very popular.  WICKED tells the story of their remarkable odyssey, and how these two unlikely friends grow to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

WICKED has “cast quite a spell” (Washington Post) throughout North America, breaking box office records in every city that it has played, including Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Boston to name a few.

Called “a cultural phenomenon” by Variety and named “the defining musical of the decade” by The New York Times, WICKED continues to thrill audiences around the world. There are currently seven productions of WICKED worldwide, including two North American tours, a Broadway production, London production, a Japanese-language production, a German-language production and Australian production.   A Dutch-language production of WICKED will open in 2011.

WICKED features set design by Tony® Award winner Eugene Lee (Ragtime, Show Boat, Candide, Sweeney Todd), costume design by Tony® winner Susan Hilferty (Into the Woods, Assassins), lighting design by Tony® nominee Kenneth Posner (The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray) and sound design by Tony Meola (The Lion King).  Stephen Oremus is the show’s musical director.  Orchestrations are by William David Brohn, with dance arrangements by James Lynn Abbott.

Grammy Award-Winning Cast recording available on Decca Broadway. For more information about WICKED log on to www.wickedthemusical.com.

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At the show’s website is more information about the current cast.

Whew!  That’s enough info for now.  ‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre

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