Follow the trek of a girls’ soul group as they struggle to make it as professional singers and then cope with the crushing weight of success. This is Dreamgirls and it is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Hang on to your hats, ladies and gents. Masterpiece #2 has arrived at the Playhouse with this exhilarating musical that’s a treat for the eyes and the ears. It’s scary to think how great this show is going to be by the end of its run because this cast came out roaring with a virtually perfect preview night performance that had people swaying to the music and some even singing along to the tunes.
Tom Eyen certainly has a strong knowledge of this era of music with his references to payola and the obstacles facing black musicians trying to cross over to the pop charts in an industry already infamous for its brutal and cutthroat nature. Eyen has a gift for creating indelible characters and his story is fairly strong. I did think he gave some characters short shrift and didn’t completely wrap up some of the individual story arcs. But these minor flaws get lost in the mesmerizing music which perfectly captures the Motown/soul/R & B sound of the 60s and the evolution to the disco craze of the 70s.
Kathy Tyree guides this production with the hand of a grandmaster. Every element has its place and all the pieces move like pistons in a well-oiled machine. Tyree leads all of her thespians to superlative performances, cutting a brisk and efficient pace. Her knowledge of the beats is spot on and she handles the show’s more emotional moments with grace and aplomb. I truly enjoyed her inspiration of staging the performance with a literal stage complete with colorful lights and metal supports (skillfully designed by Jim Othuse).
Few things thrill me more than getting to see new faces on stage and this show is packed with OCP debuts who were packed with outstanding talent. Some fabulous performances were supplied by Anthony Haynes who is dynamite as Marty, the fast-talking, tell it like it is music agent. Vi Griffin brings a soft-spoken power to C.C,, the gifted songwriter who helps fuel the Dreams’ rise to stardom. Candace Gould shines as the youngest member of the Dreams, Lorrell, who begins as a somewhat immature teenager, but evolves into a confident adult who finally makes the right choice for herself.
Jus. B continues to solidify my belief that he is one of the hottest talents in Omaha today. His versatility is on full display with yet another powerhouse performance. This one is particularly impressive as his Curtis is the most down to earth antagonist I’ve ever seen. Curtis isn’t really a bad person, he just has the fatal flaw of extreme ambition. He wants success so bad that he can taste it and everything he does is designed to benefit him in that single-minded pursuit. If others benefit along the way, well, that’s just icing on the cake. His iron control over the Dreams does yield that success, but at the price of a lot of misery. B also has a powerful voice just as versatile as his acting which has booming finality in “It’s All Over” or sincere sweetness in “You Are My Dream”.
Jordan Willis certainly did his homework with his sculpting of Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Willis’ singing and dancing style evoke memories of James Brown and Jackie Wilson. As good as his voice and moves are, it’s the tragedy he brought to the role that I found most compelling. Wills’ Early is a soul singer. That’s what makes him happy. But his drive for superstardom allows him to be convinced to alter his style into a more approachable balladeer which brings him the success he yearns for at the cost of his happiness, especially when his star begins to dim. Willis’ voice is perfect for soul music and he brought the audience to their feet with “Fake Your Way to the Top”, but he can also move your soul with the sensitive, “I Meant You No Harm”.
Karissa Denae Johnson has a showstopping theatrical debut as Deena Jones. She clearly has the gift of performing as her ease on stage and delivery are the equal of actors with many years of experience. I loved the arc she brought to her character as she wanted to make it as a singer, but as part of a unit. She reluctantly takes center stage solely to help the group succeed. Once that’s accomplished, she begins to search for what will make Deena Jones happy. Johnson has a beautiful silky voice and incredible instincts as her first performance as lead singer in “Dreamgirls” strikes that right note of nerves and shyness, but her confidence grows until she nails the emotional finale in “Hard to Say Goodbye, (My Love)”.
I needed an ice cold drink to cool me down after being lit up by the fire in the voice of Zhomontee Watson. Watson can belt a song like few can while also acting up a storm as Effie White. The Dreams were clearly inspired by the Supremes and Effie is assuredly this group’s Diana Ross. But that story gets inverted as Effie’s better voice is forced to take a back seat to Deena’s better look. Watson gives Effie a definite ego as she saw herself as the focal point of the group and she ends up tripping herself up as her jealousy (and other factors) tank her career until she learns a little humility to launch a comeback. Watson’s singing is a hallmark of the production and she had the crowd enraptured with the thunderous Act I finale, “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going”, but my favorite number was her humble and self-revelatory “I Am Changing”.
Justin Payne’s musical direction is auditory nirvana. Payne’s band skillfully handles the night’s numbers as if they wrote the score themselves and the harmonies of his singers are like eating a decadent dessert. Lindsay Pape rises to the costuming challenge like never before and has achieved the best costumed production I have ever seen. My favorite piece of costuming was the evolution of the Dream’s dresses which evolve from attractive, but affordable, orange dresses in their salad days to gorgeous sequined gold outfits at the height of their success. Ray Mercer’s choreography is flowing and natural. There’s nothing huge or flashy about it (except for Jimmy’s larger than life dancing) and is exactly what I’d expect from a pop group. Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco’s sounds are subtle, but add that vital piece of seasoning to the production.
The Playhouse is certainly on a tear with two straight bangers and I envision this one to be a big awards season darling. More crucially, I also envision it to be a monster sellout so get those tickets before they vanish.
Dreamgirls plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Mar 26. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are on sale now, starting at $25 and may be purchased at the Box Office, by phone at (402) 553-0800, or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Omaha Community Playhouse