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They're Dreamgirls in Any Language

By Kathy Larkin

It's opening night at Harlem's Apollo Theater for Dreamgirls, the fast-paced revival of Michael Bennett's impressively staged 1981 hit Broadway musical which became a 2006 film starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.

On this November 2009 evening, first stop on the show's American tour, another cast waits backstage to chronicle the rise of R&B music through the years of soul, doo-wop and the Motown sound. Against Robin Wagner's flexible set of towering LED panels, three women, The Dreamettes—Moya Angela (Effie White), American Idol second runner-up Syesha Mercado (Deena Jones) and Adrienne Warren (Lorrell Robinson)—stroll into the klieg lights and the show's first scene, the traditional Apollo Amateur Night talent contest set appropriately at the landmark theater, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, where Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown and Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5 once performed.

The Apollo, uptown from Broadway, is an unusual choice for the opening of a national tour. Producer John Breglio admits people thought he was crazy. But the Apollo is also the perfect place for a musical inspired by the story of the Supremes, Motown's Barry Gordy and the music that brought African American performers a wider audience.

Actually, nothing about this revival is ordinary. For one thing, as director Robert Longbottom says, the out-of-town tryout for this $6.7 million production was in Seoul, South Korea, performed by Korean actors in their native language. It then moved to the United States with an entirely new English-speaking cast and scenic designer Robin Wagner's $1.5 million set; five swinging panels that turn into LEDs, creating a swiftly changing visual background for city buildings, roads and animated TV monitors.

Longbottom adds, "I spent 12 weeks in Korea and they were incredible." True, directing through a translator was a challenge, but by then, he already "knew every line of the show." Despite language barriers, working with the cast was easy. "South Koreans love and are versed in musical theater lore." In an age when YouTube spans the world, he adds, they easily recognized the story. "It's not like the appearance of Jennifer Holliday, the original Broadway Effie, is any secret."

View a photo gallery of original costume drawings for Dreamgirls.

Pre-production was in Eisenhower Hall at West Point, New York. "Lots of theater tours go through there because it's a proper Broadway facility" he explains. His crew had 10 days, "working most of the kinks out" to toy with those all-purpose LED panels. "Ground zero for that was a computer in the Bronx. Even in Korea, we had to call experts in the Bronx when we had a problem."

William Ivey Long's creative ritzy glitzy costumes—numerous enough to outfit six other musicals and accessorized by Paul Huntley's 1960s-era bouffant wigs—were transatlantic high-fliers. Recalls Longbottom, "They started here in muslin, then were beaded and finished in South Korea."

When Dreamgirls opened in Harlem, New York Times critic Ben Brantley commented on the show's onstage momentum, adding: "Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's portrayal of taking care of business Motown-style has a fine-tuned, score-propelled motor that just naturally purrs and roars. Make that 'Purr!' and 'Roar!' "

Directing, Longbottom muses, is like running a marathon. "At first, you need to survive it. Then when you get the show up technically, physically, you start the process of shading and forming." And Dreamgirls, he says, is more than fast-moving entertainment. "Oddly, as structured and tightly paced as Dreamgirls is, it needs to be genuinely spontaneous.

He cites the emotional show-stopping Act I finale: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" which a heartbroken, defiant Ellie sings as she's replaced by Deena as the group's lead singer—and as Curtis' lover. Longbottom remembers the earliest rehearsals: "The first time Moya sang "I'm Not Going" she almost broke down and couldn't finish the song, which terrified her, but I knew it was all part of the process. She was a performer and had to harness the song, but she was actually living it. It's hard to make pretend on this level—to remember [as an actor] to stand at spot No. 4 stage right, cross to 4 1/2 right, but live as though this is happening to you backstage somewhere."

By opening night, it had all pulled together. New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli labels Dreamgirls "incredibly entertaining," adding, "The show plows through with gusto, grit and guts." Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard writes: "Dreamgirls is a show with killer looks, music to spare and a couple of new stars in the pocket."

As Dreamgirls heads out across the country, Oregon-born Longbottom, who came to Broadway permanently at age 18, plans to unwind—briefly. But he'll soon be on the move again to monitor opening nights for this show that was essentially created for the road—"an unusually spectacular national tour," he says.

And the future for Dreamgirls? According to Longbottom, "Dreamgirls is doing a touring company in South Africa. That said, there will most likely be a West End company of British actors in London, then an Australian company."

And, yes, Broadway, too, might be waiting in the wings. "We're interested," he says. "It won't happen for at least a year, but yes."

Kathy Larkin, a self-avowed theater buff, is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Dates: April 21 - May 2, 2010
Tickets: $20 and up
For tickets and information, visit ocpac.org or call 714.556.2787.
Group sales: 714.755.0236

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