Review: Glee's Amber Riley Lights Up Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre ★★★☆☆

Franco Milazzo
By Franco Milazzo Last edited 19 months ago
Review: Glee's Amber Riley Lights Up Dreamgirls Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre 3

Portraying the ups and downs of a black all-girl pop combo in the 60s and 70s, the musical Dreamgirls is an absolute barnstormer let down only by sloppy writing and uneven casting.

The plot, which is (cough) strongly inspired by the story of The Supremes sees the trio of lead singer Effie (Glee’s Amber Riley) and her best friends Deena (Liisi LaFontaine who takes on Beyonce’s role in the 2001 film version) and Lorrell (Ibanabo Jack) as they navigate the murky waters of an American record industry riven with discrimination, greed and payola.

Aiding the women’s various paths to glory are two men: Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Adam J Bernard) whose stage persona is clearly inspired by James Brown, and used car salesman-turned-band manager Curtis Taylor Jnr (Joe Aaron Reid).

The chief selling point here is the songs and the singing and, in both regards, Dreamgirls is a winner. Steppin' to the Bad Side, Love Love Me Baby, One Night Only and the title track are all phenomenal numbers and it is hard to find a non-cynical reason as to why it took 25 years for this musical to transition from its stage debut in 1981 to its big screen outing.

Dreamgirls is as much about the Jimmy and Curtis as it is about Effie and her fellow singers. Whether rocking out to Fake Your Way To The Top or in his more nuanced later appearances, Bernard lights up the stage as Jimmy, the star whose fame and health fade as time passes. Reid’s villainous Curtis is everything the role demands: a handsome devil in a dark suit inspired more by Machiavelli than Mozart.

Casey Nicholaw’s punchy choreography is better than his direction here, especially in a second half which veers away from the initial powerful melodrama into some kind of dreary afternoon soap opera. He’s not helped by a script which all but grinds to a standstill about three-quarters of the way through, before the vibrant finale.

The costumes are stars in their own rights and their designer Gregg Barnes has created more fabulous outfits than are seen at the average Eurovision event. As musical director, Nick Finlow should take a bow for keeping Henry Krieger’s original score tight and, where necessary, light; Dreamgirls may often come across like a common-or-garden “grim struggle against racism, sexism and body fascism” tale but the music truly elevates this production to another level.

When Riley lets rip, her Effie is fantastic without being becoming bombastic; her vocals resonate around the Savoy and grabs the entire auditorium by both ears. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Bernard, no other singer is able or allowed to let rip like she does and her soulful duets like I Miss You, Old Friend suffer through having Riley dial down her top notes to meet those of her partner.

Whenever Riley or Bernard are offstage, the whole show takes a notable dip in quality. Two stars don’t make a constellation but, at a time when much of the West End’s latest musical theatre offerings are a dark pit of overhyped dross, Dreamgirls is a comparatively shining examples of this genre’s ability to satisfy both the soul and the heart.

Dreamgirls is booking at Savoy Theatre until October 2017. More information can be found on the official website.

Londonist attended on a press ticket.

Last Updated 28 December 2016