By Steven Suskin
10 Mar 2002
Dreamgirls, Michael Bennett's final completed musical, was produced with great fanfare in 1981. It did very well, running three-and-a-half years. The international touring company returned to Broadway two years later, opening just four days before Bennett's death in 1987. Business was poor, the show closed after 177 performances, and Dreamgirls — a complicated show for regional and stock companies to produce — more or less faded into memory.
Seth Rudetsky, a fine musician and a decidedly entertaining fellow, appears to have set out to prove that Dreamgirls — the score, that is — is far better than you might think. A concert version was presented on September 24, 2001, as a benefit for the Actors' Fund; that concert was recorded live and has now been released as a two-CD set. And wouldn't you know? Rudetsky was right. The CD includes some spectacular performances, but the strength is in the material. The score — by composer Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen — has never received the respect it deserved; it was overshadowed in its time, and at the Tonys, by Maury Yeston's Nine. As the smashing new Dreamgirls in Concert makes clear, this is one hell of a score.
The original Dreamgirls had a dream of a production. Michael Bennett's staging was phenomenal. "Move" is the title of the first major song, and that word precisely describes Bennett's entire production. The performers were forever in movement, yes; but so was everything else. Robin Wagner's scenery moved to the music, including some massive set pieces that appeared to be immovable. Tharon Musser's lights, too, were part of Bennett's overall scheme. And I suspect that's part of the reason the score was underappreciated; the visuals were so strong, and the action was so fast, that much of the underlying music sounded merely functional. The truncated original cast album [Geffen 2007] served to support that opinion, with the score apparently repackaged for pop consumption at the expense of dramaturgy. Hearing the entire score as written, it's clear that Bennett's pyrotechnics were mere trimming; Krieger and Eyen provided the art, and the heart, of Dreamgirls. Conductor Rudetsky makes the score rock, and Harold Wheeler's original orchestrations are as impressive as remembered.
The presence of Audra McDonald, Heather Headley or Lillias White — any one of them — makes a good argument for buying a CD. Rudetsky managed to get all three for his dream Dreamgirls; and let me tell you, they make some trio. (This live recording is slightly marred, on occasion, by cheers and ovations from overenthusiastic fans, often brought on by a mere phrase of singing.) Little need be said of McDonald, who plays Deena (the lead singer who — officially — was not inspired by Diana Ross) or Headley, who plays Lorelle; both are every bit as good as you'd expect them to be. White, a Tony Award winner for The Life, is less familiar to many listeners, but definitely in a class with the others. She made a memorable Effie on Broadway in 1987, and she is totally chilling in her tour de force "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." But all three women have their moments to shine. What an amazing combination! The men of Dreamgirls do well, too: Billy Porter as Jimmy, Darius de Haas as C.C. and Norm Lewis as Curtis. The CD is well performed by the stars and by the ensemble. (Hidden away in brief roles are people like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Malcolm Gets, Brad Oscar, Patrick Wilson, and — together again — Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley.) And let's not forget the orchestra, which really cooks. Rudetsky is billed as Artistic Producer/Musical Director, while Tommy Krasker has done his customarily fine job as recording producer.
Dreamgirls in Concert is a real winner. Get it.