Cautionary showbiz saga ‘Dreamgirls’ still packs a punch, at McCarter

DREAMgirls review


From left at top, Trejah Bostic, Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Keirsten Hodgens co-star in “Dreamgirls” at The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.

“We sing so many songs about love/You’d think we’d know what to do when we fall in love ourselves,” sings one character in the 1981 musical “Dreamgirls.” Of course, it doesn’t work that way. The musical’s fictional hit-making vocal group The Dreamettes (shortened, in the course of the musical, to The Dreams) project an air of cool sophistication onstage. But behind the scenes, these characters’ love lives — and relationships with each other, and dealings with the manipulative men who try to maximize their money-making potential in the music industry — are often a mess.


Trejah Bostic in “Dreamgirls.”

This complex view of show-business reality helps make “Dreamgirls” ring true, even though its main attraction is, and will always be, its music — and in particular, its show-stopping ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” sung by Jennifer Holliday in the original Broadway production, and by Jennifer Hudson in the 2006 film adaptation. I am happy to report that in the production of “Dreamgirls” that is running at The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through March 24 (after debuting at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, in November and December), co-star Trejah Bostic makes this song sound as startling as ever — a cry of heartbreak in a bluesy, gospel-influenced style that is basically the opposite of The Dreams’ slick pop. (Their music and their story are modeled, partially, on The Supremes.)

Keirsten Hodgens, as fellow Dreamettes/Dreams member Lorrell, gets a similar moment to shine in “Ain’t No Party,” her angry breakup song directed at Jimmy (Saint Aubyn), a dynamic performer who seems like a mixture of James Brown and Little Richard; Jimmy takes the Dreamettes under his wing and becomes Lorrell’s lover, but ultimately decides he won’t leave his wife for her.

Ta-Tynisa Wilson, as the Ross-like character Deena, make her biggest impact not with her singing, but with the way she carries herself. At the beginning of the musical, Deena is the trio’s most down-to-earth and unassuming member — it is Bostic’s Effie who is the diva, barking out “I don’t sing behind anybody” when it is suggested that The Dreamettes serve as Jimmy’s backing group. Deena has no interest in becoming the group’s frontwoman. But when their manager Curtis (Evan Tyrone Martin) decides to demote Effie and make the more photogenic, pop-friendly and dependable Deena the star, Deena starts to take on a new aura, moving and talking differently, and projecting mysterious allure. It’s subtle, but effective.


Evan Tyrone Martin and Ta-Tynisa Wilson in “Dreamgirls.”

The creative team is the same as it was at Goodspeed, with Lili-Anne Brown directing, Breon Arzell serving as choreographer, Arnel Sancianco doing the scenic design and Samantha C. Jones doing the costume design. It’s a glitzy, glamorous production, evoking the ’60s pop world at its most eager-to-please and mainstream.

But no amount of sequins and feathers can hide the fact that there are holes in Tom Eyen’s book (he also did the lyrics, with Henry Krieger writing the music). The storytelling is very jumpy: Romantic couples go through different stages of their relationships with lots of emoting (usually in the songs) but little indication about why one stage is ending and another is beginning. Effie gets her life back together in the second act (and even has an anthemic song about it, “I Am Changing”), but how she was able to do that is never really shown.

Effie also, eventually, has an artistic comeback and reconciles with her old friends and singing partners in a way that Florence Ballard, the Supremes member on whom she is based, never did. So, remember, this is NOT intended as an exact replica of The Supremes story. Its aim is to evoke a period in music history.

There is one B.B. King-like blues number, performed by another character while the young Dreamettes are competing in a talent contest at The Apollo Theatre in New York. The toothless, Pat Boone-like pop music of the era is satirized. Payola rears its ugly head. And of course, many other groups of the time, male and female, went through the same things that The Supremes did, with managers and record company executives pushing the young and often naive musicians to sell their artistic souls in pursuit of hits, and certain members pushed aside for questionable reasons.

So, again, this is not meant to be The Supremes, exactly. Still, you can’t help but find similarities, as when the musical’s bittersweet closing song, “Hard to Say Goodbye, My Love,” echoes The Supremes’ graceful farewell (i.e., their last hit featuring Ross), “Someday We’ll Be Together.”

The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton will present “Dreamgirls” through March 24. Visit

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