The 34-year-old musical is telling us it's not going.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts pulled a 42nd Street and unleashed an understudy who roars as Effie White. Amma Osei is a dream as the volatile singer. Because she is an alternate, she may have been more polished had she performed more often with the cast, but her raw energy is fiery, and she is the diamond of an already accomplished production.
Loosely based on the tumultuous relationship between the Supremes and their mentor Berry Gordy, Dreamgirls follows the evolution of an R&B group in the '60s and '70s from their girl-group start as the Dreamettes into the superstar group. Their manipulative manager Curtis (Scott A. People) launches their career by sweet-talking them into singing backup for the wanton soul singer Jimmy "Thunder" Early (David Lamarr). After taking them on the road with Jimmy, Curtis eventually unveils them as the Dreams, a sizzling female group with a fresh soul. Despite sleeping with the insecure, full-figured Effie White (Osei) with the booming voice, he chooses the pretty Deena (Jasmin Richardson) to lead the group. Curtis' betrayal destroys Effie's self-esteem, which leads to her becoming an unmanageable diva. Eventually the group goes on to climb the charts without her. The show follows the trials and tribulations of fame, ego, success, and the truth.
Conceived by Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls is a remarkable musical that proceeds at the pace of a high-speed train. The stagecraft takes audiences swiftly back and forth between on- and off-stage shenanigans. Director Robert Longbottom's staging gives the impression of precise film editing, with every scene dissolving to the next, only letting up at intermission after one of the greatest Act 1 finales, Effie's tear-down-the-walls aria, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."
The rousing score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen contains pitch-perfect simulations of Motown hits of the '60s, including "I Am Changing," "Cadillac Car," and a James Brown replica "Fake Your Way to the Top." Two versions of "One Night Only" interpret the song as a soul ballad, then a disco hit.
Osei brings down the house as Effie. She oozes vulnerability and takes her showstopping songs to the next level. Richardson brings elegance and poise to Deena. As Lorell, the third member of the Dreams, who falls for a married man, Brittney Johnson is exuberantly zany. As her attached lover, Lamarr is a hilarious Jimmy. Emoting like a silent-film star, he is perfect as the spoiled celebrity singer.
People portrays Curtis as a slug and not the viper he is. Though this Curtis would sell out his grandmother for an extra hamburger, he doesn't have the commanding presence required to make us to believe that Deena, Jimmy, Effie and an entire industry would flock to him.
Longbottom and designer Robin Wagner exchange Michael Bennett's motif of quickly moving lighting towers for gigantic video screens that simulate curtains and marquee lights. The Oscar-nominated song "Listen" has been added from the movie. Though the instinct to give Deena and Effie a reconciliation song is a natural one, the song seemed shoehorned and anticlimactic. The new lyrics, which were written for the 2009 tour, don't pack much punch.
Longbottom's choreography lovingly re-creates Bennett's innovative movements. The cast meticulously captures the style of Vegas showrooms and illuminated nightclub dance floors. William Ivey Long's costumes are scintillating. Deena is meant to be a fashion icon, and the outfits created for the tour, many sparkling and tight fitted, are all head-turning.
La Mirada's Dreamgirls is a high-octane production, masterly constructed. Director Longbottom has brought a Broadway caliber cast and creative team together for one of the theater's most pulsating musicals.