Chimere Scott, Judith Franklin and Kayce Grogan-Wallace
Chimere Scott, Judith Franklin and Kayce Grogan-Wallace

By Manning Harris

In December 1981 the late, great Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett (“A Chorus Line”) opened a dazzling new musical called “Dreamgirls.” I was fortunate enough to see the original Broadway cast in June of 1982. A film version was released in late 2006. The book and lyrics are by Tom Eyen; the music is by Henry Krieger.

Atlanta Lyric Theatre is now running an outstanding version of the show through April 24, directed and choreographed by Ricardo Aponte. “Dreamgirls” is a classic backstage story, filled with love and loss and betrayal and triumph. It was inspired by the show business success of such R&B legends as The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, and others.

It’s Amateur Night talent competition at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre. Enter the Dreamettes, three young women named Effie White (Kayce Grogan-Wallace), Lorrell Robinson (Chimére Scott), and Deena Jones (Judith Franklin): three young women with stars in their eyes and talent to burn.

Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Kevin Harry), seeing the Dreamettes’ potential, becomes their manager and sets the girls up as backup singers to James “Thunder” Early (Garrett Turner). Effie balks at first, saying “I don’t do backup”; she realizes the power of her musical gift. But as Deena and Lorrell plead, Effie relents, and the girls are now in show business.

One of the best songs, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” cleverly points the way to the murky alleys that show business can easily lead the uninitated. Curtis is shrewd and ambitious; he feigns affection for Effie, who is somewhat heavier than the svelte Deena and Lorrell. And just as the girls’ star is rising and they are going on their way without Jimmy, Curtis abruptly drops Effie as his girlfriend and dismisses her from the group, now called the Dreams.

Curtis sees big-time crossover potential for the group, but not with Effie: She’s “too much” of everything and doesn’t fit in. This sets the scene for what has already become a legendary moment in Broadway musical history: Effie’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” an aria of defiance, pain, loss, and desire.

With all due respect to Jennifer Holliday (the original Effie) and Jennifer Hudson, who performed it in the movie, Ms. Grogan-Wallace beautifully makes the number her own. In fact, in 1982, so much attention was being paid to that song and the 22-year-old Ms. Holliday, “Dreamgirls” was in danger of becoming a one-song show. And it’s much more than that.

Furthermore, I would say that Ms. Grogan-Wallace, somewhat older, is able to bring new insights and nuance to the character, especially in Act II, that I haven’t seen before.

More kudos to Lawrence A. Flowers as C.C., Effie’s brother; and Tina Fears as Michelle, Effie’s replacement. In fact, this is a first-rate cast; every person I mentioned above deserves praise; and I cannot name everyone (that’s what theatre programs are for!). The ensemble sound is terrific.

S. Renee Clark is the music director; Brandt Blocker conducts. To them we offer much gratitude, for “Dreamgirls” is close to being a “sung-through” show; that’s a lot of music. Mr. Aponte’s direction and choreography is superb; he’s an artist who has grown over the years; that’s always nice to see.

Theoni V. Alredge’s costumes (I think she was the original) are knockouts; only Robin Wagner’s sets have been simplified a bit from the super high tech original version, which gave the show a real cinematic feel.
But the old showbiz razzle-dazzle is definitely here; the Lyric specializes in musicals, you know.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.