Review: Dreamgirls. Nottingham Theatre Royal. (touring)

Dreamgirls, directed by Casey Nicholaw is sensational. I cannot begin to describe the physical and emotional impact that this production had on me as the cast delivered some of the most passionate performances I have ever seen. To put this comment into context, I saw a very famous, multi-award winning show in London a few days ago which I absolutely adored…and Dreamgirls far surpasses it. This is one show that I will be thinking about (and singing along with) for years to come. Thank you to the entire cast and crew for a completely unforgettable experience.

Dreamgirls follows the lives of the Dreamettes/Dreams on their journey to stardom. Starting out as three innocent, naïve and somewhat awkward young hopefuls in pink flower dresses, they sing their way over the course of the show to a Las Vegas stage where they stun the audience in exquisite gold sequinned dresses (costume design by Tim Hatley). Along the way, the girls meet others in the music industry who change their lives for good or for ill. Above all, this is a story of independence, of friendship and of fighting to be heard in a world where people may not want to hear the story you have to tell.

Deena, famously portrayed by Beyonce in the 2006 movie, and played here by Natalie Kassanga ,has a sweetness to her character and the audience warms to her. She wants to please everyone and ends up married to the wrong guy. Act 2 is a real time of growth for Deena; while she took the lead in the Dreams with a voice reminiscent of Diana Ross, it is Deena’s portrayal of “Listen”, a grittier and heartfelt ballad about finding your own path is where Kassanga really comes into her own. It is clear in this ballad that Deena had been holding back to fit what the music industry wanted her to be, but now she is breaking out…and the audience were with her 100%.

Lorrell Robinson (Paige Peddie) plays her comic role with style. As the most naïve of the Dreamettes, she is swept away by the attentions of Jimmy Early (Brandon Lee Sears) and enjoys fame. Her squeals of delight and wit bring a lightness to the stage. Again though, we see a different Lorrell in Act 2, where she thought she was a woman in Act 1, it’s not until post-interval that she really shows her strength and autonomy. She doesn’t need Jimmy to be happy. None of the women need their men who arguably just drag them down. The portrayal of Black female power, independence and solidarity is incredibly moving.

One of the standout performance for me is Brandon Lee Sears playing Jimmy “Thunder” Early. I just love every time he enters the stage. It is with Jimmy that the Dreamettes first catch a break, singing back up for him, and what a character he is. Strong, loud, brash and a bit of a ladies man, Jimmy knows how to get what he wants (or what he thinks he wants). Jimmy performs for the audience more than once in concert mode, and I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from his gyrating and pulsating form as he crooned and serenaded the audience. Sears breaks the fourth wall and really draws the audience in. At one point, I could have sworn he was looking direct into my eyes, and I must confess to swooning a little. His dance moves make his body seem almost fluid. Jimmy is a lost character, but unlike the girls, he never really finds himself as he’s lost in a drug-fuelled representation of what the music industry wants him to be, only to be tossed aside.

Curtis Taylor Jr (Dom Hartley-Harris) is wonderfully cast as the mean and dangerous Curtis who breaks the hearts of both Effie and Deena. He has the charm and smarm of a salesman, but there is something unnerving about the way he never truly smiles. Hartley-Harris plays Curtis with a subtle menace and a clear confidence. When Curtis starts to not get his own way, the audience cheer – don’t get me wrong, Hartley-Harris’ performance is not pantomimesque, he just presents us with a villain so universally despised, that his comeuppance is satisfying to watch. His character works in opposition to that of C.C White (Shem Omari James) who is sweet and sincere. C.C is initially won over by Curtis, but he too finds his voice in Act 2. “Steppin to the Bad Side” is one of the highlights of the show for me. Initially a four part acapella harmony for the main male characters, this grows into a full male ensemble spectacular with the cast becoming an almost homogenised group, fighting for their voices, their music and their style to be heard. The dance moves are intimidating, emphasised by the red lighting. This song gives an underworld vibe, which is in complete contrast to the angelic Dreams.

Our third original member of the Dreams, Effie White (Nicole Raquel Dennis) may have the voice, but she does not have the look (or the attitude) to make it into mainstream. She is ousted by her lover/manager for Deena who becomes the new front person for the Dreams. If Effie was ousted for her attitude, there is justification, but for her look? No! But we know this was commonplace, and sadly is still a part of today’s entertainment industries. Effie is a diva and Effie wants to be the centre of attention. We should not like her character and yet we root for her. She is our star and Dennis is the absolute star of the stage. Dennis is an incredible talent. She presents us with a fierce yet vulnerable Effie, an extremely hard balance to strike. Dennis’ vocals are phenomenal – the best I have seen on any stage. In fact, I need to write about “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going” which plays immediately after “It’s all Over”. In this song, Dennis gives a very passionate performance as she is forced to defend herself against everyone she loves. She barely has time to take a breath before beginning “And I am Telling You, I’m Not Going”. It’s raw, it’s visceral and just when you think she can’t possibly give more to this song, she does…and then again…and then again! I have never been at the theatre before, where the audience are on their feet giving a standing ovation before the bows. There were goosebumps, tears, tension in the body, claps and whoops….and that is just me! Just sensational!

The whole production is spectacular, and you can just tell that the creative team have a strong bond and thorough understanding of the shared vision for this performance. The set design (Tim Hatley), of moveable lights, creates a multifunctional and open space which offers the opportunity to present different moods and ambience, along with a plethora of performance opportunities. There is a harmony with the stunning lighting design by Hugh Vanstone and I found the use of shadow especially effective and poignant. The choreography by Casey Nicholaw (wow – she is one talented lady – director and choreographer extraordinaire) is beautiful, strong and energetic. There are so many facets to the choreography: replicating the moves of Motown groups, full ensemble numbers and individualised dance moves to set mood. The woodwind choreography and the strength portrayed in “Stepping to the bad side” are particularly memorable for me.

Would I go to watch this performance again? 100 times yes! Quite simply, I would pay the full ticket cost just to experience “And I am Telling You I’m not going)” again! I cannot recommend this production enough. It is 200% not one to be missed. And the good news is, you have until Saturday 28th May to get down to Nottingham’s Theatre Royal to be moved and mesmerised. See you there!

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