‘Dreamgirls’ – there’s nothing sleepy about it

By Lesley Stones 14 March 2011

Goosebumps were running up my arms, and it had nothing to do with the air conditioning. It had everything to do with the large lady on stage, bravely snuffling her way through a song after being dumped as lead singer for being too fat. By LESLEY STONES.

It’s one of the most poignant moments in the razzle-dazzle “Dreamgirls”, a glitzy, glamorous musical with a strong plot, characters you care about and costumes that remind you how badly we all dressed in the old days.

“Dreamgirls” sounds as lightweight and insubstantial as cappuccino froth, but this is froth with a big bold injection of caffeine underneath. It’s the story of a trio of wannabe singers – the Supremes, perhaps – and their slow climb to fame as they’re marginalised by white music buyers and manipulated by wily black managers.

The presentation is absolutely perfect, creating an exuberant, flamboyant experience in the way that Motown music always did. Yet there’s far more substance than expected, and you’re drawn into a tale of deceit and duplicity, ambition and greed and finally, of course, personal triumph over adversity, heartbreak and sheer bloody racism.

Lindiwe Bungane completely steals the show as Effie, the big girl of the trio whose amazing voice sometimes has the audience shrieking when she’s only half way through her songs. She’s truly superb, quivering beautifully through the emotional downs, soaring back undefeated and giving us loads of backchat in the few moments when she isn’t holding us  in thrall with her voice.

Compared to Bungane the other female singers are lightweights, with Tracey-Lee Oliver as lead singer Deena Jones not quite having the stage presence to stand up to this force.

“Dreamgirls” is a Broadway show with a local cast where almost everybody shines. Bjorn Blignaut is delightful as James Thunder Early, the archetypal Motown sleezeball whose steamy groin-grinding movements inspired the white imitators like Elvis Presley. His power-packed voice and comic undercurrent add another layer of excellence.

The stage set is brilliant – a wall of shimmering screens that act as projectors to amplify the action, then slide around to divide the space so that back-stage drama and on-stage events can take place simultaneously. It looks simple, but it’s strikingly effective. The lighting effects are fabulous too, and the way Effie pulls off a costume change without anybody noticing demonstrates how creative and classy the illumination is.

Costume changes are swift and innumerable, with a succession of ever more glittery outfits showing how the girls progress from young hopefuls to superstars. There’s a live band with a line-up of trumpets and trombones giving us that authentic R&B atmosphere, while the songs have clever lyrics that carry the story forwards and explain the background. A highlight is “Steppin to the Bad Side” where inventive choreography by Robert Longbottom shows how the managers began bribing DJs so their music finally got air-time on the mainstream radio stations.

“Dreamgirls” is bold and beautifully professional, with the fun supported by an admirable backbone of substance. DM

“Dreamgirls” runs at Montecasino until 17 April and at Cape Town’s Artscape Opera House from 9 – 26 June.

For more on the sassy, but classy showtime scene in Gauteng, visit Lesley’s great website.


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