Review: Dreamgirls at Liverpool Empire ****
Twelve months after its Christmas residency, Dreamgirls is back at the Empire for the final hurrah of its inaugural UK tour – and if the opening night is anything to go by, it’s not lost any of its power to pack in an audience.
It’s certainly quite the spectacle, an explosion of Technicolor stage suits, marabou trims, punchy vocals and slickly choreographed dance routines underscored by a rip-roaring band in the pit.
The nominally fictional story is set in the 60s R ‘n’ B and soul scene and against a time of seismic change in the United States, explored through the experiences of a perky all-girl singing group the Dreamettes and with sharp things to say about the manipulation of the music industry.
And what follows is a (well-trodden) story of rise, rows, recriminations, but ultimately of resilience and reconciliation.
We first meet Deena (Natalie Kassanga), Lorrell (Paige Peddie) and Effie (Nicole Raquel Dennis) backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Fresh from success in a similar competition in Chicago, the naïve-but-determined trio fetch up in the Big Apple in folksy mum-made frocks and with Effie’s softly spoken composer brother (Shem Omari James) in support.
It looks like they’re on a swift return trip to Illinois until they’re swept up by car salesman-turned-music Svengali Curtis Taylor Jr (Matt Mills), who spies their potential and inserts himself into the role of manager.
He realises to achieve his ambitions he needs to woo the group's forceful leader Effie, who eventually falls for the man and his vision. But he has his eye firmly on mainstream success, and as time goes on anyone who won't compromise or bend to his controlling will is ruthlessly dispatched.
Above: Lorrell (Paige Peddie), Effie (Nicole Raquel Dennis) and Deena (Natalie Kassanga) with Brandon Lee Sears as Jimmy Early. Top: The three Dreamgirls.
It’s quite a long show, and while there’s a clear and persuasive narrative arc occasionally it feels like it lacks a bit of oomph. Certainly, the second half machinations around the direction of the group and Deena’s growing dissatisfaction with her role could be tightened up.
The real strength of the production lies perhaps unsurprisingly in the fizzing performances of its roster of original musical numbers (albeit only one of which, One Night Only, I could in all honesty sing on waking up), with the titular ‘Dreamgirls’ front and centre.
They harmonise beautifully, but Dennis – The Voice finalist mentored by Jennifer Hudson (who won an Oscar for her performance of Effie in the 2008 film version) – proves to be the standout star.
Her powerful, expressive delivery of the first half showstopper And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going unsurprisingly had the auditorium on its feet on opening night. But she also brings impressive emotional depth to less showy numbers including a ballad version of the aforementioned One Night Only, a song the rest of the ‘Dreams’ present as a frenetic disco hit.
Meanwhile Brandon Lee Sears delivers a firecracker performance as Jimmy Early, the Little Richard-a-like soul star who is reluctantly persuaded by Curtis to tame his irresistibly wild and unpredictable stage act to appeal to a more conservative (white) audience.
It's here for one week only. But if you are seeing Dreamgirls you’ll certainly be starting 2023 with a roar not a whisper.