Bold and brassy Clay Aiken background vocalist Quiana Parler stops the North Carolina Theatre’s powerhouse presentation of Dreamgirls not once, but twice, with her electrifying renditions of “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going” and “One Night Only.” Parler’s vibrant vocals and her charismatic characterization of Effie Melody White, a big girl with an even bigger voice, brought Saturday night’s Raleigh Memorial Auditorium audience to its feet, for two exuberant and prolonged standing ovations, one at the end of the first act, the other at the conclusion of the second act.
Although something of a diva, Effie has paid her dues to become the original lead singer of an all-girl Soul music group from Chicago called The Dreams, which co-stars diminutive Deana Jones (Valisia Lekae Little) and tall and skinny Lorrell Robinson (Anika Ellis). But the up-and-coming trio’s new manager, Cadillac dealer, would-be music mogul, and all-around smooth operator Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Josh Tower), wants to enhance the girls’ cross-over potential — and maximize their chances of scoring hits on the nation’s pop charts — by softening their sound and renaming the group Deana Jones and The Dreamgirls, with Deana singing lead and Effie demoted to background vocalist. For Effie, who is romantically involved with Curtis, this move is the ultimate betrayal, both personal and professional.
Valisia Little and Anika Ellis give personable performances as Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, acting and singing their roles with pizzazz. They combine with Quiana Parler and Josh Tower to create a compelling fictional version of Diana Ross and The Supremes and hotshot Motown record label founder Berry Gordy III. Gordy was no doubt a real wheeler-dealer, but Curtis Taylor, Jr. is positively Machiavellian in his ruthless campaign to propel Deena Jones and The Dreamgirls to the top of the pop charts. If payola is what it takes, Taylor is willing to pay it.
Josh Tower is slick but sinister as Curtis; Josh Breckenridge is charming as Effie’s somewhat naïve brother, songwriter C.C. White, who initially sides with Curtis in the group’s power struggle but lives to regret that decision; and Broadway star Kingsley Leggs is terrific — a real humdinger — as funky and very funny rhythm-and-blues legend James “Thunder” Early, a James Brown-clone billed as the “Wildest Man in Show Business.” Whether belting out his rhythm-and-blues hits or hitting the after-hours joints with a bevy of beauties on his arm, Jimmy Early is one lean, mean party machine; and Leggs milks every humorous moment in the role for maximum comic effect.
Also deserving kudos are Milton Craig Nealy, who adds a gritty portrait of Marty, “Thunder” Early’s cruelly castoff former manager, and Rosena M. Hill, who vividly portrays Michelle Morris, Effie White’s replacement in The Dreamgirls.
Dreamgirls is smartly staged by director Richard Stafford, with razzle-dazzle dance routines devised by choreographer Josh Rhodes and dynamic instrumental accompaniment by musical director Edward G. Robinson and the NCT orchestra. Other highlights of the NCT production include magnificent costumes and splendid minimalist light-tower sets from The Myers Office and costumer Ann M. Bruskiewitz, hair/wig/makeup designer Patricia DelSordo, and properties mistress Laurie Johnson.
Technical director Bill Yates, Jr., lighting designer Craig Stelzenmuller, and sound designer Jonathan Parke also do yeoman’s work in making the North Carolina Theatre’s spunky home-grown production of this Tony Award®-winning Broadway musical a real crowd-pleaser. Don’t miss it.
North Carolina Theatre presents Dreamgirls Tuesday-Friday, Jan. 15-18, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 19, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 20, at 2 and 7 p.m. Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $26-$76. NCT Box Office: 919/831-6950. or through presenter's website. Group Discounts (up to 20 percent for groups of 10 or more): 919/831-6944, ext. 6944. Note: Arts Access, Inc., will audio-describe the 2 p.m. Jan. 19th performance. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com. The Show: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=3192 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.tams-witmark.com/musicals/dreamgirls.html (Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc.). Study Guide (Theatre Under the Stars of Houston, TX): http://www.tuts.com/season07/dreamgirls_study.pdf [inactive 2/08]. Dreamgirls: Your Virtual Coffee Table Book of the Musical: http://www.dreamgirlsthemusical.com/. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443489/.