Thanks to Wales Millennium Centre for providing us with review tickets for this show
I’ve been reviewing theatre shows for more than 20 years and I don’t think I have ever seen a standing ovation mid-show – until last night’s press performance of Dreamgirls, that is. Seeing an audience rise to their feet at the end of a musical is almost par for the course given the standard of theatre we are lucky to see gracing our stages here in Cardiff. But in the first act, in response to one particular song… that’s a new one for me.
So powerful is Nicole Raquel Dennis’s performance of And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going at the end of act one that the audience is up on its feet clapping and cheering as the final notes still linger in the air. Her rendition of the song – made famous in 2006 by Jennifer Hudson in the musical film of Dreamgirls and by Jennifer Halliday in the 1981 original Broadway production – is so raw, emotional, desperate, passionate and defiant as she declares her love for Curtis, the band manager and boyfriend who is replacing her as his leading lady in both the band and his life. “I’m staying and you, and you, you’re gonna love me,” she tells first him, and then the audience.
Her performance as Effie is (and I don’t use this word lightly) sensational; so soulful, so moving and so deserving of both the applause midway through as she hits the high notes, and of the ovation at the end. Every part of her body is caught up in the emotion as she dips to the floor and bends over double, and her vocals soar. I wasn’t the only one completely overcome with tears, and grateful for the interval to compose myself.
Of course, one belter of a solo doesn’t make a musical and thankfully there’s plenty more here that dazzles, with a phenomenally talented cast, exquisite costumes and effective lighting combining in this tale of three best friends looking for musical success in a 1960s-era American music industry rife with racism and sexism.
Dreamgirls is inspired by Diana Ross and The Supremes (although to what extent, the debate rages on) and other similar girl groups of the era, although barring the few songs the show is famous for the music isn’t quite as strong as its inspiration. That said there are plenty of stand-out moments and performances and a strong plot where friendships are tested to the extreme.
Natalie Kassanga is charming as the small town girl Deena who reluctantly steps into the aforementioned Effie’s lead role in the Dreamettes, later the Dreams, when band manager Curtis (played by Dom Hartley-Harris as smooth on the outside but cunning and deceitful underneath) decides she has a more affable (ie slimmer) look and a softer voice that will help give the band mass (namely white) appeal.
Paige Peddie playing Lorrell Robinson makes up the musical trio, caught in the middle between Effie and Deena and providing many lighter, comic moments. In the second act she’s given more of a chance to shine vocally and we see a sassier more assertive side to her character.
In fact, all three women really grow throughout the production, becoming more empowered and standing up to the men who have manipulated them.
Shem Omari Jones is an affable CC White, composer of some of the girl group’s biggest hits, while Brandon Lee Sears gives depth to Jimmy Early, a James Brown-esque solo performer who the girls initially provide supporting vocals for before becoming their own solo act. He’s all fantastic dance moves, vocals and charisma to start but we soon see a more womanising side to him and his frustrations that he has to change his sound to appeal to the white audiences.
The costumes throughout are stunning, the sequinned dresses and the array of wigs getting more exquisite as the band’s fame grows. The set is wonderfully effective given its rather minimalist appearance, with stage backdrops of the singers’ various performances and clever lighting rigs enhancing the musical numbers.
I took my 10 year old son with me to watch last night’s show and he loved it. He’s familiar with music from the era and found the insight into the music industry fascinating. The age guidance is 8+ with no under twos admitted. I think my eight year old would have lost a lot of the subtleties of the plot as there’s quite a lot to follow but he would have really enjoyed the musical numbers. It’s a good one for families with older children looking for a show with a bit of substance and lots of talking points.
Whether you’ve seen the film or not, or even seen Nicole Raquel Dennis dueting the song she was so obviously born to perform with Jennifer Hudson on The Voice or not, this is a powerful production with enough depth in the plot to match the big musical numbers. A story of tested friendships and standing up for yourself, it’s emotionally fraught, doesn’t shy away from difficult issues but is ultimately uplifting.
Dreamgirls is at Wales Millennium Centre until 30 April. Tickets start from £17.50 and there’s good availability for the rest of the run. For more information and to book tickets visit the Wales Millennium Centre website here.
Photos of UK Tour company by Matt Crockett. © Dreamgirls UK Tour 2021