Alexis Sims, Chaunteé Schuler, Nova Y. Payton, and CJay Hardy Philip in Dreamgirls
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
Alexis Sims, Chaunteé Schuler, Nova Y. Payton,
and CJay Hardy Philip in Dreamgirls
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
In some ways, the Prince Music Theatre's production of Dreamgirls is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The former is the audience's collective memory of the peerless 1981 Broadway production, magnificently staged by Michael Bennett and starring Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Ben Harney; the latter is our imagination of just how fabulous the forthcoming film version, directed by Bill Condon and starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Jamie Foxx, and Eddie Murphy, might turn out to be. But if you can keep your mind firmly on the present, this solid version of Tom Eyen and Henry Kreiger's soulful musical will keep you handily entertained and occasionally moved.

Nearly 25 years after the show's debut, Eyen's book remains engrossing. Hustling car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr. (Kevyn Morrow) transforms himself into a manager at an Apollo talent contest, instantly convincing a young girl group, the Dreamettes, to sing back-up for James Thunder Early (Eugene Fleming), a James Brown-like star. Soon, Curtis is lavishing attention on the group's strong-voiced, strong-willed lead singer, Effie White (Nova Y. Payton). But when ambition gets the best of him -- and to some extent, Effie -- he throws her over, both professionally and personally, for the group's prettiest member, Deena Jones (Chaunteé Schuler). In Act II, the reconfigured Dreams, now led by Deena, begin to become super-famous, and Curtis continues to plot their ascent at all costs. Meanwhile, Effie has given birth to Curtis's child, unbeknownst to him. When she tries to stage a comeback, using a song the Dreams have also just recorded, Curtis determines to engineer her downfall. More than just a backstage drama, Eyen's script also makes some serious points about the challenges that African-American performers faced in gaining stardom and, more importantly, respect in the 1960s.

One can hardly expect anything at the Prince to equal Bennett's transcendent original production, which featured Robin Wagner's amazing sets and Theoni V. Aldredge's sumptuous costumes. Richard M. Parrison's Jr. direction, Mercedes Ellington's choreography, and Todd Edward Ivins' simple set design -- enlivened by the frequent use of projections -- get their jobs done efficiently if unremarkably. On a higher level are Mark Mariani's superb costumes -- including a trio of what appears to be vintage Pucci dresses for a 1970s sequence -- which give the show some much needed visual pizzazz.

A little more musical pizzazz would have been nice. Eyen and Krieger's irresistible R&B-flavored score seems a bit underheated here, and the 11-piece orchestra sometimes manages to drown out the singers. While members of a certain generation might not find Dreamgirls as melodic as, say, the work of Kern or Rodgers, I dare anyone to leave the Prince without humming the title song (which does get two reprises).

Ultimately, any production of Dreamgirls rises and falls on the strength of its cast (which is why film director Condon was wise to wait until he could assemble his own dream team). Payton isn't your traditional Effie; she's barely overweight and her voice is decidedly high-pitched. (If they ever do a color-blind version of Hairspray, she'd make an ideal Tracy.) But she is a powerhouse performer, more than capable of channeling the character's rages and insecurities. Her singing of the second-act ballad "I Am Changing" is transcendent, and though her rendition of Effie's signature song "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going" is not the equal of Holliday's, it still gets lots of well-deserved applause.

Morrow gives a pitch-perfect, beautifully sung performance as the oily Curtis. Schuler does accomplished work as Deena, precisely charting her transformation from shy back-up singer to steel-nerved if essentially good-hearted diva. In the scene-stealing role of Jimmy, the wonderful Eugene Fleming resists caricature and creates a flesh-and-blood portrait of a man who's constantly at a crossroads. The remainder of the cast, including CJay Hardy Philip as a sassy Lorrell, lends able support -- although Forrest McClendon isn't vocally suited to the role of C.C. White, Effie's songwriter-brother. (It's hard to forgive him for mangling one of my favorite songs in the show, "Family," but in the spirit of the piece, I'll try.)

To envision the superstar-studded film version of Dreamgirls, all you've got to is dream; to see a worthwhile stage production of the musical, all you've got to do is get to Philadelphia by December 31.