Picture: Matt Crockett


The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Every so often along comes a show that grabs you and carries you along from opening note to closing curtain, reminding you what a magical place theatre can be – and Dreamgirls ticks every box and more.

It takes us back to the 1960s, the early days of Motown records, a label that changed forever the face of pop music which had been a white preserve up to then, especially in the USA, with black artists confined to R&B and soul.

Into that mix come three wannabes, The Dreamettes, three friends from Chicago, Effie, Lorrell and Deena, entering the amateur night talent competition at the famous New York Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

They lost but backstage fell into the clutches of Cadillac salesman and grifter Curtis Taylor Jr, who sweet talks them into accepting him as their manager by dangling the promise of a tour.

The tour being the price he had already extorted from soul superstar Jimmy Early’s desperate manager Marty to supply The Dreamettes as backing singers for Jimmy’s performance at The Apollo that night after his own singers had left.

Matt Mills is a great Curtis, smooth talking, sinister, controlling, and out and out nasty. The sort of guy who would shake your hand on a deal and be gone before you realised you were missing two fingers and a gold ring.

He had The Dreamettes under his spell, only Effie needed persuasion, and he solved that by sweet talking her . . . and more - she was to carry his child we were to discover - while also two timing her with Deena. Did I mention trusting him was another no no? Mills is just superb.

Nicole Raquel Dennis as Efie is the real star of the show though. You suspect structural engineers check every theatre before Dreamgirls plays because she has a voice that could being a house down, note perfect whether loud and powerful enough to be heard in space, or quiet and soft as a jilted lover’s sigh.

dreams and Jimmy

Brandon Lee Sears as Jimmy Early with the Dreamettes as backing

Her And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going when Curtis dumps her both romantically and professionally is a torch song showstopper which achieved the rare distinction of a standing ovation during a performance. A real raised hairs on the back of the neck moment. It’s a performance worth the price of a ticket alone.

She is matched by Natalie Kassanga as Deena, another fine voice. Deena is the ambitious one, not that she tries to ride roughshod over the rest of the group, she was even reluctant to take the lead role, but she sees she has a future and wants to take it and finally tires of Curtis telling her what to do and what she can’t do.

Then there is Lorrell, played by Paige Peddie, another great voice in a rather dizzy singer who falls for Jimmy, and he, sort of for her, but after seven years of his promising to leave his wife – a wife we never see – even her patience is wearing thin. It’s a lovely performance with some telling looks and lines.

Jimmy, is Jimmy. Soul singer, R&B superstar finding life hard in a changing music business. There are attempts by Curtis to turn him into a new Johnny Mathis, even a Nat King Cole, but Jimmy’s roots are in the likes of Marvin Gaye and James Brown and he’s far too wild to be controlled by a car salesman like Curtis.

It’s a fine performance from Brandon Lee Sears whose years as a ballet dancer come to the fore with some classy, smooth dance moves allied to a great voice and the stage attitude of a star act such a Jimmy Thunder Early, an attitude falling apart as fame starts to wane.

On the fringes is CC, Effie’s song writing brother who writes brilliant material but is lost in the Curtis power game. Shem Omari James as CC find himself in a permanent dilemma as Curtis takes control of everyone’s life. His songs are integral to the group and he has been persuaded that what Curtis does is for the good of everyone, yet finds himself too timid to act when Effie is first demoted from lead singer to backing for Deena and finally sacked.


Nicole Raquel Dennis as Effie White

Seven years on and Effie, petulant, argumentative and a single mum of a seven-year-old daughter, has been taken on by Marty, who is trying desperately to at least get her a booking, without success until she sings the anthem I am Changing which gives her a second showstopper. There is also a brilliant piece of stagecraft involved.

As she sings in the empty club in frumpy clothes, the lights dim to a pin spot on her face then rise again to reveal a patron packed club and Effie in a shimmering gown. A touch of theatre genius from director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw.

Marty’s brand of loyalty and persistence has paid off. Played by Jo Servi, Marty had walked out on Jimmy when Curtis and his promises and big ideas muscled in and took over Jimmy’s life.

Marty was quiet, professional, knew the business, looked after his clients and their interest, was honest and fair and pretty much all the things Curtis wasn’t. When Effie fell he was the one to catch her.

With Effie back on the circuit CC is to discover that Curtis’s loyalty does not extend beyond Curtis when his soul love ballad One Night Only is rearranged into an upbeat, souless dance number by Curtis. Curtis is to discover meek and mild can blow up in your face if you push it too far – and CC is way over the edge.

The battle of the nights is about to ensure, Deanna Jones and The Dreams v Effie White and for once Curtis is to lose and perhaps with it his power to control.

Dreamgirls takes us through the murky world of show business, particularly in pop with its scandals of payola to get records played on radio or get rivals not played, of deals, promises, both kept and broken, and the characters, the movers, shakers and fakers who populate it.

Along the way there are some great songs evocative of the era and some dance routines that are way beyond mere ensemble hoofing, these are routines demanding dancers and technique and add an extra element to the show thanks to an exceptional ensemble.

It is all aided by an excellent nine piece band under musical director Simona Budd, nine being large for touring productions, and the richness of sound you enjoy shows why numbers matter.

The set and fabulous costumes from Tim Hatley add speed and sparkle. Some of the costume changes for The Dreams are lightning fast – while the set with sliding panels and drop down stage sets for the various theatres and clubs means no break in scene changes while the Noises Off technique of having acts perform to the rear of the stage so we can have scenes backstage works really well.

Another technique which works well is much of the dialogue, as in opera, is sung, which when you get used to it, allows actors to get more emotion into what they are saying through the music.

The show is an alternative or even an addition to traditional panto and Christmas fare, and for your money you get drama, heartache, betrayal, good music, solid gold entertainment and, to top it all off, a happy ending – what more could you want?

Dreamgirls is at the Alex to New Year’s Eve and it really is a dream of a show, brimming with soul, heart and class.

Standing ovations have become devalued these days by people leaping up at the end of any old performance but on Press night, a standing ovation seemed the very least an audience could offer in thanks. Catch it while you can. To 31-12-22.

Roger Clarke


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