It’s the kind of rags-to-riches theater story that makes people swoon. Mystique Steward had no prior theater experience when director Dan Pessano cast her in the pivotal role of Effie White in the new Good Company Players production of “Dreamgirls.”
Flash forward to opening weekend, when Steward’s character positions herself on stage for the famed first-act finale. Effie has just learned she’s been dumped from the Dreams, the Supremes-like R&B group whose path to fame and fortune we follow through the musical. The theatrical stakes surrounding this song are pretty high: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is not only one of the best-known in the show, but Effie sings it alone — and has to deliver one of those raise-the-rafters experiences we associate with Jennifer Holliday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in the movie version.
Does Steward deliver? Oh yes. This is a riches-from-rags story, after all. Director Dan Pessano knew exactly what he was doing when he cast her in the role. She fills the theater with a big, barreling voice and a hefty volume that made my spine tingle. (I’m a little worried about her keeping it up over the run — but more on that in a moment.)
The aspect of Steward’s performance that surprises me, however, isn’t so much her vocal chops. (She’s long been a choir member at Saint Rest Baptist Church.) It’s her acting in the show. Steward is a natural. She isn’t always consistent, but there are many moments when she seems to truly connect with the anger, ache and resilience of her character — and she let me feel it, too. Her performance is a highlight in this charismatic if uneven production.
“Dreamgirls” isn’t just Effie, of course. This musical requires a strong ensemble cast to pull it off. Among the other standouts in this production: Salisha Thomas as a feisty but good-hearted Deena, who replaces Effie as lead singer of The Dreams; Barton Perry as a wonderfully voiced and cheerily played “Thunder” Early, the former R&B legend who tries to retool his style to changing musical times; and Christian Harris as Effie’s squirmy brother, C.C., torn between family loyalty and a desire to make a name for himself in the music business.
I do have some criticisms. Although the third original member of the Dreams, Tineskia “Tina” Robinson as Lorrell, has some strong acting moments, her vocals weren’t as consistent the night I saw her, including a few pitch problems. Edward Anderson, as the all-controlling manager, Curtis, didn’t resonate much with me in terms of stage presence, and he strained vocally at times at the Friday performance I watched.
“Dreamgirls” is a complex show with lots of settings and a swiftly moving timeline. It needs clever, seamless transitions, and Pessano is adept at hustling the action along while still giving the show’s many emotional moments time to resonate. Sometimes the technical side of things can’t quite keep up with that vision, however. Too often Andrea Henrickson’s lighting design seems clunky during the frequent scene and time transitions, and there are too many times when flabby blackouts stymie the momentum. I realize that with the theater’s small stage and issues with wing- and fly-space, set designer David Pierce is limited in terms of his options. That’s where it seems as if the lighting design could be more effective.
And while I’m very bullish on Steward as Effie, and revel in her voice, I do wonder if she is pushing too much in her lower and mid ranges — and hope that six shows a week don’t lead to vocal injury. That’s something for vocal coach Dee Smith to keep a close eye on.
Still, I don’t want to let the critical part of this review overwhelm it. This show has a lot of heart. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are like another starring character: lots of extravagant gowns, glittery dresses and whimsical creations. Greg Grannis’ choreography adds a distinctive stamp to the production as well. And Pessano’s direction finds the core emotion. When Effie and Deena meet again after so many years, I had a lump in my throat — and I’m sure many in the audience did, too. As Effie, Steward might be in her first play, but I’m betting it won’t be the last.