There’s only one (more) night only to catch the impressive production of “Dreamgirls” at the Saroyan Theatre. Solid, soulful vocals and an upbeat energy (especially in the dynamic second act) pump up this non-Equity national tour. But the top draw for me was the fascinating and effective scenic design, which added another theatrical texture to this oft-told tale. (It plays again 7:30 tonight at the Saroyan Theatre.)
This “Dreamgirls” keeps the same time period of 1962-1975 as it tells the story of the rise to the top of the fictional Dreams, a group loosely modeled on such 1960s R&B successes as The Supremes and The Shirelles, but it updates the look and feel of the original 1981 Broadway production. Instead of using traditional backdrops and set pieces, Robin Wagner’s scenic design consists solely of a series of LED panels that rotate, glide and move up and down. Five of these screens come together to provide a top-to-bottom backdrop, while additional panels downstage closer to the audience shift from side to side, carving out the stage into smaller spaces for more intimate scenes.
The result is a bare but charged visual aesthetic that might not satisfy theater traditionalists who like to see more literal scenery. (Except for one piece of industrial-looking metal furniture, the LED panels, credited to Howard Werner, provide all the visual information other than the costumed actors.) But I think the concept works really well.
And just what do these panels display? As you might expect, they quickly shift in this fast-moving (and at almost three hours, quite long) show. In the opening scene, for example, as the three struggling members of the Dreams — the confident and big-voiced Effie White (Charity Angel Dawson), the beautiful yet subdued Deena Jones (Jasmin Richardson) and the young, meek Lorrell Robinson (Mary Searcy) — try to win an amateur talent competition, the biggest panel changes from a performer’s-eye view of an audience to a backstage backdrop depending on the perspective.
At other times, the LED panels display abstract shapes and colors, depending on the mood of the scene. Photographs and video are incorporated into some designs, including moments that parallel the action happening on stage.
You can see this technology in some Broadway shows today. When I saw the short-lived “Ghost” on Broadway last year, the entire stage was covered in movable LED screens that shifted almost constantly while combining with traditional set pieces.
Now, before I rhapsodize too much about the look of this “Dreamgirls,” let me say that the technology is still pretty primitive in terms of resolution. (On Broadway, of course, the budgets are much bigger, and the visual quality has been better in the shows I’ve seen.) I have no doubt that in 10 or 15 years we’ll look back on the technology used in this Saroyan Theatre production the same way we wince at old Pong video games and tiny 8-inch computer monitors.
Still, I’m impressed that touring companies are experimenting with this kind of technology. We should probably get used to it. As the cost goes down, it probably will reach a point where it’s cheaper to tour with high-tech screens than old-fashioned scenery. A happy medium will likely need to be reached, I’m guessing, because it would quickly get old for every show to be digital only until there’s a remarkable advancement in image resolution. One reason the LED panels work so well in this show is there’s something “retro” about the technology that matches well to the ’60s and ’70s vibe of the show.
Some images translate a lot better on the panels than others. In the big song “Dreamgirls,” the three singers — who by now are on a career climb thanks to their sleazy manager, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (nicely played by the South African stage and film actor Aubrey Poo), are backed by a screen of what looks like blurry silver tinsel. (For the big finale to the song, the image shifts to blurry pink tinsel.) Photographs come across as pretty muddy. And some of the abstract designs don’t quite work: a series of what look like red tail lights turn into a big smear during the transition when the Dreams first hit the road, for example.
But many other times, the impact is powerful. To open the second act, we see the nose of an airplane landing in front of us, followed immediately by a lattice of intersecting white lines suggesting an airport terminal. Often the most profound effect is that of an intensity in color, coupled with Ken Billington’s sophisticated lighting design. When Dawson gets to sing the crowd-pleasing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — which she does with impressive vocal chops and emotional intensity — it’s a great moment made even better by the design.
Of course, there are risks when you’re relying on technology. (When I saw “Ghost,” the show had to be stopped for half an hour after one panel crashed into another.) At “Dreamgirls,” the front panel closest to the audience had two prominent black squares throughout the first act intruding on an otherwise seamless image — an effect quite similar to having bad pixels on your PC screen. But that problem was solved for the second act.
There were some sound issues, alas, which unfortunately seems standard for touring shows breezing through the Saroyan. (To be clear: It isn’t the acoustics that are mediocre, it’s the production’s lack of familiarity with the space.) This time around we almost completely lost the voice of the off-stage announcer, and the live orchestra wasn’t as well balanced with the singers as it should have been, particularly in the first act of the opening-night performance.
For all my attention toward the technology in this production, I don’t mean to slight the excellent direction by Robert Longbottom, who keeps the pace swift and energetic, and some powerful singing and acting, from Richardson’s fiery Deena to Michael Jahil’s uppity yet soulful James “Thunder” Early, the “star” who gets left in the Dreams’ dust. (Terrance Johnson was the weakest among the principals as C.C., Effie’s brother.)
And I love a major nod to the 2006 movie version of “Dreamgirls” made in this new production. The song “Listen,” which was a capitulation in the movie to Beyonce’s need for a big solo number, has been given to both Effie and Deena in this production. It’s a perfect moment for the song, which is crafted into the show’s emotional peak.
As for pure vocal power, Dawson is great. I’ve always loved the moment in this show when the gals join in with Jimmy Early for the first time in “Fake Your Way to the Top.” Deena and Lorrell jump in on backup vocals with nice but subdued voices, but when it’s Effie’s turn, she bowls Jimmy over with her booming voice. When Dawson delivered in that moment — and then some — I knew we were in good hands.