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18th September 2022

Review: Dreamgirls

Jessica Hamilton and Katie Bray review Dreamgirls at the Palace Theatre, where it is playing as part of its first-ever UK tour – starring Nicole Raquel Dennis
Review: Dreamgirls
Paige Peddie (Lorell), Natalie Kassanga (Deena) and Nicole Raquel Dennis (Effie). Photo: Matt Crockett.

Dreams can come true! After a 41 year wait, Dreamgirls is finally in Manchester – so The Mancunion sent two theatre-fanatic writers to celebrate this momentous occasion.

Jessica Hamilton

They’re your Dreamgirls, Boys! And they’ve finally come to Manchester. The dazzling musical is gracing the Palace Theatre for the first time, over 40 years after its Broadway debut!

The story is loosely based on Dianna Ross and The Supremes (Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, the latter of whom is replaced by Cindy Birdsong), with the spotlight put upon the forgotten Ballard. It follows a small Black girl group whose singers find success crossing into the pop charts. Through a work of fiction, it tells the very real stories of Black artists struggling to make a name for themselves, despite their obvious talents. 

The audience follows Effie White (Nicole Raquel Dennis), Deena Jones (Natalia Kassanga) and Lorell Robinson (Paige Peddie), or ‘The Dreamettes’, on their journey to success. After losing a talent competition, the hopeful teenagers are scouted by car salesman Curtis Taylor (Matt Mills). He convinces Marty (Jo Servi), the manager of the already famous and eccentric Jimmy Early (Brandon Lee Sears), to let them sing backup. After touring with Jimmy, the girls quickly reach stardom and are re-named ‘The Dreams’ (just like ‘The Primettes’ became ‘The Supremes’).

But game comes as a cosy, and the musical unravels revealing compromise and consequence as integral themes. Marty’s line “You can’t have it all” summarises the show perfectly.

The frustration of this is explored throughout the show, but especially through Jimmy’s switch from “I Mean You No Harm” to “The Rap”. Sick and tired of singing slow songs to please predominantly white audiences, Jimmy breaks into energetic song. Sears engaged the audience; his energy was infectious and his talent beyond belief. The song comes to a halt as Jimmy pulls his pants down on stage. This act was met with a roar of laughter, but it soon dies down as Jimmy is disgraced into leaving by his team. 

Jimmy was filled with pent-up frustration, built by his record label tailoring songs to fit into the 60’s charts. By humiliating himself, he makes a stance against the entertainment industry.

The cutthroat and backstabbing nature of the industry is also explored in Dreamgirls. It’s predominately shown through Effie being replaced in the Dreams (first with Deena replacing her as the lead singer and then Michelle replacing her altogether). It is referred to multiple times in the show. Namely through the stealing and altering of songs: the reinvention of ‘One Night Only’ into a glamorous dance track perfectly demonstrates the business in showbusiness. But what I found most sinister was the cheesy, White, Beach Boys-esque singer who stole the song ‘Cadillac Car’. As he is wheeled out on a blue platform with a sparkly background, it’s stressed his talents are all show and no soul.

With so much packed into one show, so much could go wrong. But I found myself wishing the show would never end. The characters were down-to-earth and multidimensional, and the talented cast who played them were hypnotic to watch.

The star of the show was Miss Effie White, played by the exceptionally talented Nicole Dennis. Her rendition of ‘And I am telling you I’m not going’ received an early standing ovation just before the interval. The applause, which is usually reserved until the end, was well-deserved for this performance of a lifetime.  Dennis appeared on season eight of the voice, where she trained and sang with a former Effie White, Jennifer Hudson. The EGOT winner’s role in Dreamgirls scored her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Living up to the phenomenal success of Hudson would be intimidating to most. But Dennis played the strong-willed character so smoothly, it’s as if the role was made for her.

The rest of the cast were just as captivating. Kassanga gave a stunning performance as Deena Jones. Her growth throughout the show spoke directly to the audience, and even prompted someone to shout “You Go Girl,” as she leaves Curtis. Peddie was suited to play the adorable Lorell Robinson. Her comedic timing was spot on, but she still wowed us with her deeply emotive voice. Brianna Ogunbawo did a good job playing the underwritten but notable Michelle Morris. And of course, the audience favourite was Sears as Jimmy, who gave an impressive performance of such a high-energy character.

The visuals were stunning throughout; credit should be given to the creative team for such a beautiful show. The Lighting Design (Hugh Vanstone) enhanced ‘Steppin’ To The Bad Side’, and ‘One Night Only’ wouldn’t have been the same without the Set and Costume Design (Tim Hatley).

Such a spectacular show is hard to summarise and would probably take longer than the 2 hours 40 minutes running time. So, if you’re seeking a night of phenomenal entertainment, stunning vocals and an important story, then book your tickets now.

Katie Bray

Dreamgirls has finally arrived to Manchester on its much-anticipated first ever UK tour.

I eagerly awaited the show’s opening, wondering how the original theatre format would compare to my first introduction to the Dreamgirls (in the 2006 film – one of my favourite movie musicals), and it certainly didn’t disappoint…

Dreamgirls is a musical set in the 1960s, following a trio of Black female artists searching for fame, despite the racism, misogyny and setbacks faced during their careers.

The protagonist is the ambitious Effie White (Nicole Raquel Dennis/Sharlene Hector), who confronts cruelties and betrayals on her way to stardom. Her song-writing brother, C.C. (Shem Omari James), has to adapt his music to satisfy White audiences.

Meanwhile, slim, traditional-beauty Deena Jones (Natalie Kassanga), struggles with her individuality, due to her forceful manager, Curtis (Matt Mills). Last but not least, Lorrell Robinson (Paige Peddie), the witty heart of the group, tries to pacify the trio’s conflicts, whilst working her way through a complicated relationship with James “Jimmy” Early (Brandon Lee Sears), a sex-driven star, whose every move mesmerises and captures the funky aesthetic and style of the 60s era.

Each star had her own shining moment, all producing beautifully versatile solos and harmonic vocals. Despite being set back in the 60s, the musical retains much relevance in today’s society, containing themes of domestic control, racism, media body-shaming, and the cruel nature of ‘Showbiz’, encapsulating them with a combination of musical genres like pop and soul, varying between emotional, soulful and disco-esque, danceable songs.

‘Family’ from the 2006 Movie:

Some of the most famous and popular songs include the titular ‘Dream Girls’, ‘Listen’, and ‘One Night Only’, although every song is just as memorable for their variations in style/genre and the rich vocal casting.

‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’, originally performed by Jennifer Holliday in the original 1981 Broadway production of Dreamgirls, and later generations of Effie White actresses, including the awe-inspiring singer and ex-The Voice judge, Jennifer Hudson, in the movie adaptation of Dreamgirls (2006) – and now the dazzling Nicole Raquel Dennis.

High expectations arise when you realise Nicole Raquel Dennis was previously taken under Hudson’s wing in The Voice (2019), becoming a semi-finalist and iconically duetting the song with her on show.

This song forms a pivotal part of the story, explaining Effie’s desires, dreams and frustration with her lover, Curtis, and show business. The powerful raw emotions require seamless blends of acting, crying outbursts, and a powerful wide array of notes, making it a difficult feat to perform. Effectively, it could become the breaking point for any adaptation of the musical.

However, Dennis’ voice was pure magic, with all the ferocity and beauty required, completely enchanting the audience and holding our sympathies with the character, thus leading to an overwhelmingly deserved standing ovation (the first I have ever seen for one song at any theatre production).

‘I Am Changing’ from the current show:

The stage design was simple yet effective, with reused vertical stage lights providing a centre point and used to create the illusion of different stages, spaces and perspectives. Most times, they perform straight towards our audience, the most ironic of which being the fourth wall-breaking ‘Jimmy’s got soul’, seeing his hilarious hip-thrusts, gyrations and encouragement of audience participation.

Other times the staging featured gorgeous draping, light set pieces, and sometimes used the lights as a space to show backstage conversations during a performance, creating realistic perspectives with little space.

Costumes were equally as wonderful, glitzy and colourful.

Whilst there were a few moments that felt a little brushed over, such as the birth of Effie’s child, who is mentioned approximately twice, and the eventual fate of the soulful Jimmy Early (Lorell’s love interest), this was ultimately overshadowed, wisely focusing more on the branching, complicated relationships of ‘the Dreams’, their fame, their lovers, their managers, and their family; as well as the difficulties of being Black female singers in a racist and size-discriminatory society.

The show is a love letter to old styles of pop, Motown, R&B, soul, disco and more, with luxurious costumes, an energetic cast, mesmerising melodies and passionate, flawless acting.

Dreamgirls is running at Palace Theatre Manchester until 24th September and touring the UK until the end of February 2023.

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