Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela, and Adrienne Warren
in Dreamgirls
(© Joan Marcus)
Syesha Mercado, Moya Angela, and Adrienne Warren
in Dreamgirls
(© Joan Marcus)
There's no doubt that the role of Effie White in the Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen musical Dreamgirls, now launching its national tour at the Apollo Theatre, is a star-making one. Just ask Jennifer Holliday, Lillias White, and Jennifer Hudson! But there's no guarantee that whoever portrays the fiery singer will end up as a lasting luminary in the firmament. Still, my money's on relative newcomer Moya Angela, whose intense, deeply-felt performance as Effie is the red-hot center of Robert Longbottom's enjoyable if slightly too cool revival of this timeless backstage musical.

Dreamgirls follows the fortunes of Effie and her friends Deena (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (Adrienne Warren) who are discovered at a talent show at , yes, the Apollo by slimy hustler-on-the-make Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd). Through pluck and luck, he gets them a gig as back-up singers for R&B star James "Thunder" Early (Chester Gregory). Soon, the ambitious Curtis is throwing over new love Effie -- personally and professionally -- to focus on Deena, whom he makes the lead singer of the new group The Dreams, and Effie eventually departs the now-successful group under cloudy circumstances. The show's second act hurriedly moves through a ton of complications, before reaching its upbeat conclusion.

From her initial entrance on stage as part of the Dreamettes, Angela projects Effie's fierce self-confidence and determination. Moreover, she has an almost regal quality, yet one tinged with just enough arrogance to make Effie's downfall (and subsequent resurrection) inevitable. A powerful singer, Angela offers a stunning rendition of the now-legendary first-act closer "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" that does full justice to the song, and does a superb job as well with "I Am Changing." If everything on stage was up to Angela's level, this could be a revival to truly be reckoned with.

Having to follow in the footsteps of the peerless Michael Bennett is practically a thankless task, and Longbottom's staging and choreography too often substitutes brisk efficiency for electricity. (There's a nifty if showy moment in "Steppin' to the Bad Side" where Longbottom really lets loose, but many of the numbers lack sufficient personality.) He does paint a goodly share of memorable stage pictures, although Robin Wagner's minimalist set, aided by the stunning media design by Harold Werner/Lightswitch, William Ivey Long's seemingly endless parade of period costumes (accented by Paul Huntley's wigs), and Ken Billington's clever lighting design end up doing more than their fair share of the atmospheric work.

Longbottom has only made minimal changes to the original script. The major exception is adding "Listen" (by Krieger and Willie Reale) as the show's penultimate number. But unlike in Bill Condon's film version, where the song was used to signal the emancipation of bird-in-a-gilded cage Deena, the now completely rewritten number serves as a too-quick moment of reconciliation between Deena and Effie, who haven't spoken in seven years. Fortunately, Angela once again gives the song her all, and it provides the evening's brightest spot for the lovely and mostly convincing Mercado, the former American Idol finalist whose singing elsewhere can sound surprisingly thin.

Indeed, the show's uneven casting also damages the production's overall feel. On the plus side, Warren is absolutely dazzling as Lorrell, full of sass, strength, and heartache, and the prodigiously talented Gregory thrills the crowd with his vocal pyrotechnics and sure-footed moves as Jimmy. (Just a hint more desperation in "The Rap" might be good, though.) The smooth-voiced Shepherd is a tad lightweight for Curtis; he gets the character's ambition but not all of his danger nor charisma. Sadly, Trevon Davis as Effie's songwriter brother, C.C., and Margaret Hoffman as new "Dream" (and C.C's love interest) Michelle are neither strong enough singers nor actors to carry their roles.

However, even in a slightly imperfect production, it's good to have Dreamgirls back, especially one that showcases a star-on-the-rise like Moya Angela.