On my recent visit to London, the one show I really wanted to see was Casey Nicholaw’s production of ‘Dreamgirls’ at The Savoy Theater. I have never seen a proper production of the show, and this particular production has been revered and slated to be moving to Broadway later this year – its first Broadway revival ever. After purchasing tickets, I fully immersed myself into the cast recording, and based on that alone, had several questions. Firstly, why does Deena here have a really weak singing voice, especially along side Amber Riley’s. I mean, is this an obvious directorial choice? Also, I observed that Amber Riley’s performance seems a little too clean, based on the cast recording anyway. But I still was so looking forward to seeing the production, and to say I was excited would be am understatement.
Enter a horrific experience getting in from Heathrow – long lines at passport control, an Uber ride from hell, and found myself rushing to theater late. And adding insult to injury, realized that Amber Riley was on vacation that week, so I was doubly crestfallen. But make no mistake, Marsha Wallace, her understudy, did a more-than-competent Effie.
So what did I think of the production? Nicholaw is more than competent as well, and I loved several directorial touches (There’s a ‘reveal’ in ‘I Am Changing’ that made me utter ‘wow) Gregg Barnes’ costumes do wow, and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone, set by Tim Hartley impress. But they impress, at times, just for the sake of. I did not find a lot of synch because each item is to sleek, too shiny, too polished. I always imagine Michael Bennett’s staging – all sleek towers that ebb and flow, and the only thing I can wonder is if he would approve of the modernness of this production.
Plus. this seems too influenced by the movie version. The addition of ‘Listen’ never did anything for me, and here as performed as a duet by Effie and Deena, still seem lifeless – all sound no fury. And the super amplification doesn’t help it. And while we are on the subject of Liisa Lofantaine as Deena, I was still bothered by her sometimes pitchy singing. As an actress, she was fine, but I honestly had cringey moments while listening to her singing.
As for my disappointment on not seeing Riley? When I was on TKTS booth in Leicester Square the next morning, the very knowledgeable young lady recommending shows told me that she thought Amber Riley was much too young to essay the role of Effie, and felt her performance hollow. Well, maybe I am just being bitter but perhaps in this production, it really doesn’t matter which Effie you see in the role. Even in her viral performance singing ‘And I Am Not Telling You,’ I felt disconnect with her character. Of course, I cannot definitely say that because I did not see her performance, but it did make me pause.