NEWS FROM THE ROAD
The toughest thing about casting productions of Dreamgirls, says director-choreographer Tony Stevens, is finding talented actors who understand the style of the 1982 musical. After all, the ground-breaking Michael Bennett musical was all about a specific sound and style: the glamour and sparkle of the sixties black pop scene as articulated in Tom Eyen's libretto of the rise of a black diva singing group loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes.
"Some are totally clueless; they don't know how to walk down a staircase," said the director-choreographer just before he was to go into rehearsals with a new touring production, which opens September 23 in Providence, Rhode Island and stars Roz White as Effie. "They come to rehearsal in baggy pants and work boots. No, no, no. It's leotards and tights and heels if you want to convey tease and glamour."
Stevens has been putting more than a little tease and glamour into musical productions for over 30 years, ever since he arrived in New York in 1966 to pursue his own dreams of fame and fortune. Born and raised in Herculaneum, Missouri, in a music-loving family, he was a spunky, ambitious young teen-ager when he first saw Diana Ross and the Supremes on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." But he instinctively understood the sassy elegance, which his mentor, Michael Bennett, would one day shape into Broadway legend through Dreamgirls. "We identified and claimed the Motown sound as our own," Stevens says of the exuberant, high-energy, black sound that influenced the dress and habits of an entire generation. "Rock and roll was still pretty much in its infancy, and there was a freshness and excitement to the whole scene. The Beatles pushed it over the top. I remember buying my first double-breasted suit and 'fruit' boots. I didn't care what they were called. I wanted to be hip."
In fact, Stevens would be more than hip, later dancing on the "Ed Sullivan Show" with "Miss" Ross herself and then directing Dreamgirls, first in Florida and then at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. The finely-honed instincts brought to mounting these productions came from his early years as a gypsy and assistant choreographer, working with such directors as George Abbott, Gower Champion, Ron Field and Michael Bennett.
"George Abbott was definitely from the old school," he said. "He created the formula musical, which Michael then came along and re-invented. He had such a sense of clarity and directness. Michael had an incredible theatricality, but he never fell in love with his workhe had amazing objectivity. If it didn't work, it was gone. I remember Wayne Cilento, Rick Mason and I were in the 'Music in the Mirror' number [in A Chorus Line] with Donna [McKechnie] during [workshop] rehearsals, until one day Michael came in and said, 'You guys are out of the number.' The number was about Donna, not about her night-club act."
Stevens hopes that he brings those same virtues to his work, which has also been shaped and cultivated in television specials (Mary Tyler Moore's "How to Survive the Seventies"), movies (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) as well as in night-clubs acts (Bernadette Peters, Dolly Parton). He describes the enduring appeal of Dreamgirls as one rooted in people's love for the American success storyeven if it fails to live up to all it's cracked up to be. The crucial thing, he says, is to remain passionate about the work.
"I want this production to be as young and vibrant and exciting as I remember it when it first opened," he says. "There are lots of people out there with the same ambition and hunger and love of performing as the characters. You just have to light the spark."
-- By Patrick Pacheco