“Dreamgirls” arrives at the Orpheum Theater for a weeklong run with a great pedigree — awards for both the stage and screen version of the musical, a story that, if not drawn from, certainly is inspired by the story of the legendary Supremes — and a cast packed with hotshot vocalists, including “American Idol” alum Syesha Mercado.
So why was I glad to finally escape the theater Tuesday night and get outside in the cool, refreshing air? This “Dreamgirls” is all thunder and flash, with almost no substance to back it up.
The show follows the rise of the Dreams, a young black vocal group that rises rise to the top of the charts thanks to their driven manager and a deep understanding of the new soul sound. Time and conflict wears down their friendship, leaving strong willed (and voiced) Effie to fend for herself.
Along the way, the characters come up against the changing times of the music business first trying to break through to the white-dominated pop charts and then trying to keep their place on top and finally trying to grow musically and professionally in unpredictable ways.
Robin Wagner crafts a set based on massive banks of lights and effects that not only overwhelm the audience, but the actors as well. Dwarfed by the very setting, the performers struggle to carve out their spaces. In the end, any subtlety that creators Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger may have poured into their characters gets lost amid the bright set and noisy arrangements.
Some of the actors thrive in this situation. Chester Gregory as soulman James “Thunder” Early commands the action every time he’s on stage, just as the expert showman he plays should. Showing great range, the funky Gregory seems ready to audition for a “The Life of Prince” musical, which fits in perfectly with his character.
The actors tasked with becoming the Dreams aren’t as successful. Apart from Maya Angela’s Effie, the other three (a replacement Dream comes in at the end of act one, but is never further developed) are hard to keep straight on the stage — is this the one who wants to make a movie, or wants Thunder to leave his wife for her, or the one who just doesn’t have much to do at all?
Angela takes advantage of her every moment in the spotlight, especially on the epic act-one closer, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” where every phrase gets stretched and stretched and stretched to the breaking point.
Really, this style of diva singing is the cheesy, mugging overacting of musical theater. It’s fun to watch and listen to in limited amounts, but when every moment is played at over-the-top range, it loses all of its impact.
At times, it all comes into focus —”Steppin’ to the Bad Side” neatly shows us how payola worked to get songs on the radio — and “Dreamgirls” becomes the fabulous show that opened nearly three decades ago. Those moments are quickly lost amid the din, however, and I left the show exhausted and with a pounding headache — and the comfort that the cold, quiet Minnesota night didn’t hide any divas ready to sing me their life stories.
“Dreamgirls” runs through Jan. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. Tickets are $28 to $78. For information and tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit online.