Emotional attachment to cultural artefacts is a major driver in the entertainment business. The West End is in thrall to the musical of the film of the book, the Radio 2 playlist is based on the music its target audience listened to when they aged 16 to 25, and Funko turns over $1 billion a year selling plastic models of the stars of pop culture. Familiarity is fundamental. We’ve all been to concerts with a favourite band who sprinkle the set with new material, making it difficult to connect. And yet, despite not knowing the story or any of the music, Dreamgirls gave me a great time.
The show is a revival of the 1981 musical by Eyen and Krieger which ran on Broadway for three years and has since enjoyed several incarnations. It was the basis for the film starring Eddie Murphy and Beyoncé. It won a Grammy for Best Show Album. I was probably the only person in the audience who didn’t know any of this, but I still joined the five-minute standing ovation at the end.
It’s the story of a group of black girl singers who are discovered at the Harlem Apollo Amateur Night in 1962, and go on to fame and fortune amid a rising body count. It’s also the story of the evolution of black music in the US and its shift from being almost entirely appreciated by a black audience to capturing the white audience through dance music, and gaining the ultimate respectability of playing at a fundraiser at the Democratic Convention.
And it’s a story of coercive control. The journey of the girls from backing group to major stars is carefully and forcefully managed by Curtis Taylor, a car salesman with an eye for the main chance. It’s a journey that involves bullying, bribery and betrayal.
All this is told in two and a half hours of almost continuous song and dance. Natalie Kassanga as Deena Jones and Paige Peddie as Lorell Robinson, two of the original trio, are excellent, but Nicole Raquel Dennis as third member Effie White is outstanding. She has a voice that could move mountains. It certainly got the audience on their feet at the end of her act one closing number.
The men sing and dance, too. Matt Mills as Curtis Taylor does some fine work in a number where the men’s jackets swirl through the air as the dancers tumble over each other, and he gets boos at the curtain call for being so nasty. Lovely stuff.
The outstanding male performer has to be Brandon Lee Sears as Jimmy Early, clearly based on Little Richard, whose singing is terrific and, at the height of a song, he jumps into the splits. Wow.
This is a great night out, and if you know the music you’ll love it even more than I did.
Images by Matt Crockett
Dreamgirls is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until September 24, 2022. For tickets, click here.