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'Dreamgirls' Powers Into Downtown

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, March 03, 2010, at 10:04PM
Dreamgirls Joan Marcus / Center Theatre Group

Chester Gregory (James Early), Syesha Mercado (Deena), Moya Angela (Effie) and Adrienne Warren (Lorell) in “Dreamgirls.”

"Dreamgirls," the 1981 musical about those who controlled the soul charts of the 1960s with payola and charm, clearly has staying power.

The play first debuted only months after MTV was launched, but at a media conference last week the young cast members proudly said that YouTube was their research tool of choice while looking to channel the performances of 60s soul singers.

Even in the digital age, though, the show delivers. Unlike the scoundrels that dare to displace the lead diva, the performance running through April 4 at the Ahmanson Theatre keeps its promise to bring excitement to the stage.

With nearly 30 years of productions and the 2006 film as reference, the story is well known. The girl group known as the Dreamettes are lead by the driven Effie Melody White (Moya Angela), Deena Jones (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell Robinson (Adrienne Warren) who step off the bus directly to the Amateur Night stage at the Apollo Theater (also the venue in which this touring production began its run). Taken in by the smooth Marty (Milton Craig Nealy) and less suave Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), the trio is renamed the Dreams and tapped to be the label's major crossover stars.

The moment when Effie is pushed aside to be replaced by Deena as the lead singer, the Diva is stricken. Her "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" is a lamented demand to stay front and center of her stage, as much as it is to keep her man. Moya Angela nails it, and her force of voice and emotion are as chilling as her displacement by the large monitors that whisk her away from the revamped trio.

Like the show, it leaves no chance for subtle moments, often overpowered to move forward high style.

Those monitors are high LED screens that become a backdrop for locations; studio monitors at televisions appearances, backstage wings, Las Vegas after dark, and closeups of singers. The staging updates Dreamgirls for a generation that measures success by being sighted on video.

Mixed-media on a stage is a reminder of the very medium that displaced live performances as the measurement of culture. Here, towering monitors spin in and out with the same fury as costume changes.

Chester Gregory takes the role of James "Thunder" Early, channeling a long line of soul men who worked to their audience directly. Along with the expected James Brown-esque presence, there is character sampling of Little Richard, Jackie Wilson (who Gregory portrayed on Broadway), Prince, and another 80s connection: Prince and Morris Day. It pains Thunder to leave his royal rawness to croon sad ballads just to appeal to a larger ( read: white) audience. That leads to another show stopping scene, rebelling in front of a large electronic flag, offering his own wardrobe malfunction. Seems Thunder also was the original gangsta.

No matter how many times the audience has seen it, the story is still well-crafted, and the R&B Operetta has singing performances that do not betray what was the original boom box: the human voice pained by lost promises and recovered by redemption.

"Dreamgirls" / Ahmanson Theatre / 8pm Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8pm Saturdays, 1 and 6:30pm Sundays (Call for exceptions) / Ends April 4 / (213) 972-4400 / Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with intermission

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