By Jay Handleman, Herald Tribune, Feb. 21, 2018
Hit musical is set during the dramatic rise of the Motown sound
From her past roles at Venice Theatre and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, audiences already know to expect big things from actress and singer Syreeta S. Banks. But even that doesn’t prepare you for her commanding performance as the rejected soul singer, Effie White, in the Venice Theatre production of “Dreamgirls.”
As she guides Effie from the highs of launching her career as lead singer of the girl group the Dreamettes through the devastating lows of being pushed aside for someone thinner and prettier by the man who supposedly loves her, Banks is the heart and soul of the production.
Her singing is vibrant and filled with emotion, from the big notes she provides as backup to the James Brown-like singer Jimmy Early, to her soul-stirring versions of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I’m Changing.” She captures Effie’s tenacity and determination and her unwillingness to bend to fit some pre-established mold.
Banks is an Equity actress performing in this community theater production courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, so her dominance may not be surprising, though several of the other cast members also are paid performers, which is meant, in part, to expand the diversity of the theater’s offerings.
Director and choreographer Brad Wages keeps the show in almost constant motion, aided by Tim Wisgerhof’s attractive and functional set of a tiered platform and twin staircases surrounding a revolving panel that allows for scenes to shift quickly from stages to dressing rooms.
The musical, by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, tells a story loosely based on the success of the Supremes and their guiding spirit, Motown producer Berry Gordy. It charts the development of the Dreamettes through a competitive and changing music world where payola can lead to hit records and national concert tours.
Just as the Dreamettes are gaining ground, their sleazy and manipulative manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Bryan Taronn Jones), shuns his girlfriend, Effie, in favor of Deena Jones (Cherise James) as the new lead singer, sending Effie to backup with Lorell Robinson (Alicia Thomas).
James is an attractive performer and looks the part of the beautiful, burgeoning star, and she reveals much growth and maturity over the course of the show. But she doesn’t have the voice needed to make Deena’s promotion and the group’s astounding success believable. Thomas is fun as Lorell, who grows before our eyes from a naive youngster into a woman who learns to stand up for herself. She carries on a yearslong affair with Jimmy, played by a dynamic and full-of-fire Kristofer Geddie. He’s constantly moving, jittery or jumping and can’t be contained by the more mainstream material Curtis wants him to sing.
Marquise Atkinson has some charm as Effie’s songwriting brother, C.C., who eventually finds his own backbone, and Edwin Watson provides a sense of strength and measured cool as Jimmy’s manager, Marty.
The score captures the sounds of the rise of the Motown era, but the songs frequently serve dual purposes. They’re fun to listen to and sound like they might have been played on the radio in the ’60s and early ’70s, but they also mean something. The dark “Heavy” doubles as a commentary about Effie’s weight, and “I’m Changing” is both a powerful anthem and a statement of purpose.
Michelle Kasanofsky and her seven-person band sound radiant… Costume designer Meg Ferguson pulls out every bit of spangle and glitter in the outfits that grow more glamorous as the Dreamettes evolve into the more stylish Dreams. John Michael Andzulis provides a colorful array of lighting to accent emotions in key moments.
…. the show is something of an achievement, a moving and frequently exciting experience that could potentially expand the reach of Venice Theatre’s audience as it brings a dynamic story to the stage.