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Heather Headley, Lillias White, and Audra McDonald
in a publicity shot for Dreamgirls
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Actors' Fund of America's 20th anniversary benefit concert of Dreamgirls had an awful lot of hype to live up to, but no one in attendance would deny that it did so in thrilling fashion. Even when judged by the rarefied standards of previous all-star benefits, this "one-night-only" event was a smashing success--and, in the wake of vicious terrorist attacks on our country, a shining example of the art form that is American musical theater.

Because there was so little to complain about in the performance, let me get that negativity out of the way right now. The show started off badly in that it started half an hour late, though the audience members had long since taken their seats. Then we had to sit through an introductory speech by Brian Stokes Mitchell that can most charitably be described as eccentric. (Mitchell gave no explanation for the half-hour delay other than a joke about the fact that there were some "divas" in the show.) When this Dreamgirls finally began, it soon became clear that the great Billy Porter--in the James Brownesque role of Jimmy Early--was hurting, perhaps having blown his voice out in rehearsals. And though Peter Fitzgerald's sound design for the show was excellent overall, one or two glitches caused a few lines to be lost in loud thumping noises and static.

Otherwise, the evening was sheer heaven--a tribute to artistic producer/musical director Seth Rudetsky, co directors/choreographers Brenda Braxton and Danny Herman, and everyone else involved, from the Dreamgirls themselves right down to the smallest walk-on roles (filled by the likes of Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Patrick Wilson, and Brad Oscar). Like most of these events, Dreamgirls was much more than a concert, the lack of set and costume changes notwithstanding; it was thoroughly blocked and choreographed, and superbly lit by Paul Gallo. Some of the players carried scripts, but only for occasional reference. The overall effect was so electric that we can almost expect the Weisslers to try to move this production to Broadway as is, but that would be a mistake. Though Dreamgirls has already been back to Broadway once since its initial run, another full-scale revival is definitely in order.

If only such a revival could secure the services of the three women who headlined the Actors' Fund gala. I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Lillias White play Effie in 1987, and it's a joy to report that she's still magnificent in the part--funny, sassy, heartbreaking, ultimately triumphant. Some have expressed surprise and disappointment that Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie, was not engaged to recreate the role in this concert (Holliday herself was reportedly as surprised and disappointed as anyone). But, for my money, White sings and acts Effie with a lot more sincerity than her predecessor, and sincerity is an essential aspect of this role. As to the other two Dreams, Audra McDonald was wonderful as Deena Jones; fears that her voice might actually be too good for the character (which is, after all, a thinly-veiled portrait of Diana Ross) proved to be beside the point. And Heather Headley was the revelation of the evening as Lorrell Robinson, diplaying hilarious comedic skills and expert vocal control--especially in the "Ain't No Party" number, which was a showstopper.

Though Dreamgirls of course focuses on its three female leads, the show also happens to contain three male roles to die for. Norm Lewis possesses one of the most beautiful singing voices of our time and is an

Billy Porter, Norm Lewis, and James Stovall
at a press preview of Dreamgirls
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
exceptionally fine actor, so it's no surprise that his performance as the Machiavellian Curtis Taylor, Jr. was definitive. Darius de Haas was perfect as the loving but conflicted C.C. White, leading the heartfelt ballad "Family" with vocal tone so gorgeous as to make the angels weep. Billy Porter, by sheer force of talent and will, was a major presence as James Thunder Early despite the unfortunate condition of his voice last evening.

Tamara Tunie and James Stovall were excellent in the small but important roles of Michelle and Marty. The kick-ass ensemble included such A-list singers and dancers as Shoshana Bean, Paul Castree, Angelo Fraboni, Deidre Goodwin, Adam Hunter, Denis Jones, Adrienne Lenox, Ric Ryder, and Orfeh. And the large orchestra, excitingly but sensibly amplified, played beautifully under Rudetsky.

Aside from the fact that this event raised many thousands of dollars for The Actors' Fund, and aside from the indescribable pleasure it gave to all those in attendance, the production would have been fully justified if only to serve as the basis for a complete, live recording by Nonesuch (target release date: November 20). Popular though it may be, the original cast album of Dreamgirls is a hatchet job which preserves less than 50% of the music (by Henry Krieger) and lyrics (by Tom Eyen) of a show that is virtually through-composed. In collaboration with Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls' original director/choreographer, Krieger and Eyen created a classic that deserves full audio documentation. It's not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest musicals ever written, and we can only express our deep gratitude that The Actors' Fund gave it such a brilliant, unforgettable production.

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