From left, Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in ‘Dreamgirls’ © Brinkhoff
1st, let’s talk about the voice. Amber Riley, the lead in this long overdue West End debut for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s 1981 musical about a black female singing group trying to make it in the Sixties, is possessed of a rich, glorious voice. Even though the Savoy Theatre is properly under street level, when she lets rip you’d swear she could raise the roof. It is a real joy to hear her, but she also finds wells of pathos and subtlety. Her character, Effie, is a single of a long line of wonderful black singers who turned pain into song, and when at the finish of the very first act she is rejected by each her band and her man, Riley channels that deep soul tradition into her heartfelt solo “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”.
The irony is that Effie’s voice, the USP of her group the Dreamettes (not a million miles from The Supremes), is not sufficient. Their manager persuades them to ditch her as lead singer in favour of the prettier, a lot more marketable Deena in order to break via in the fickle, racially prejudiced music company of the 1960s. And, commercially, he’s correct: they make the big time. Dreamgirls’ damning portrayal of this planet shows the awful dilemmas for black artists, and the whole drive of the show is each to expose and amend this by making Effie, her story, her pain and her voice the star of the show.
While it raises severe concerns, even so, it’s not a show that digs deeply and characterisation is pretty thin. It’s through the music that Dreamgirls does the talking, and director Casey Nicholaw seizes on that and delivers it with knockout power. The show is exhausting just to watch: it whirls by in a blur of spangles, sequins, snakes and sharks in this world just to stop and breathe would have you mown down by the showbiz juggernaut.
It’s a dazzling, witty and canny staging: Tim Hatley’s bling-tastic set, Nicholaw’s slightly tongue-in-cheek dance routines and Gregg Barnes’s fabulous costumes all draw consideration away from the show’s shortcomings. And it is just immense entertaining. Adam J. Bernard is a delight as the hip-swivelling Jimmy “Thunder” Early Tyrone Huntley is touching as the songwriter out of his depth and there is wonderful help from Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack as Effie’s co-singers and soul sisters. The evening even though, rightly, belongs to Riley.
Booking to October 2017, dreamgirlswestend.com