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'Dreamgirls' delight at Village Theatre in Issaquah

'Dreamgirls' tells the story of a group of young African-American singers trying to make a name for themselves in the 1960s.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Village Theatre

The world of show business is not a perfect one, and the path to becoming famous is not covered in roses.

That is what audience members can learn from Village Theatre’s new musical “Dreamgirls.” Based on the rise of groups such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” tells the story of a group of young African-American singers trying to make a name for themselves in the world of 1960s Motown.

When girl group the Dreamettes — comprised of Deena Jones (Lauren Du Pree), Lorrell Robinson (Alexandria Henderson) and lead singer Effie White (Angela Birchett) — meet Curtis Taylor, Jr. (John Devereaux) at a talent contest, they get their big break. Curtis promises to make the Dreamettes stars, and gives them a gig as backup singers for R&B singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Nathaniel Tenenbaum).

As the Dreamettes gain fame, fortune and romance, tensions also rise. Curtis, who is dating Effie, makes Deena the new lead singer, and eventually kicks Effie out of the group altogether, replacing her with a new singer, Michelle Morris (Joelle Weil).

As the years pass, Effie strikes out on her own, but her former flame Curtis works to bring her down so that the Dreams, as they are now called, will beat her in the charts. In the meantime, Deena realizes that Curtis, who is now her husband, is not the man she thought he was. Whether the Dreams can reconcile with one another and come together as a group again or not is the big question.

One of the main themes of the musical is the way music artists must conform to a standard to succeed. Often times, it is meeting this standard that can matter more than the amount of talent one has. This is true for Effie, who is the best singer of the Dreamettes, but finds herself replaced because she is plus-sized.

“There’s a very specific way that people think beauty is,” Du Pree said. “There’s this one image of what beauty is in the media … and a lot of pop stars don’t make it unless they fit that look.”

Du Pree herself has run into this in the modern era. Because she has eczema, she has lost out on roles due to the way that her hands look.

The need to conform stretches not only to looks, but to style of music in an era when racial issues and music style were closely intertwined. Although race isn’t the main plot driver of “Dreamgirls,” it would be difficult for skin color to play no role in a show set in the Civil Rights era. Because the Dreamettes/Dreams want to sell records to all Americans and not just the African-American community, they have to alter their sound to be less Motown and more pop so as to attract white listeners.

“It’s the whole idea of coming up with a commercial sound to cross over the pop charts,” Du Pree said. “Curtis’ goal is to make them more accepted by a white audience.”

The simplicity of the set is brilliant — with most of the show set either on a stage or backstage, the set hardly needs to be different from Village Theatre’s own stage, with a couple of extra rows of stage lights.

And the simplistic set is all the better to show off the hundreds of dazzling costumes used in the show. Of the 483 costumes created by the Village costume department for the 2016-17 season, 235 went to “Dreamgirls.” The rainbow of shimmering gowns and sequined cocktail dresses are a real treat for the eyes and a definite highlight of the show.

Deena, Effie and Lorrell never wear the same thing twice, appearing in different costumes every scene they are onstage — and sometimes wearing two different costumes in the same scene, thanks to the ingenious work of costume designer Karen Ann Ledger and fast helpers backstage.

“It’s the most sparkle I’ve ever put onstage … But you get a lot of mileage out of sparkle in telling the story,” Ledger said. The abundance of different outfits helps to show the passage of time; the women are performing different shows around the country every night for years, so it makes sense to show them in a lot of different looks.

Additionally, the over-the-top glitz plays an important role in race relations of the era.

“Glamour was a new thing,” Ledger said. “People of color were not on TV. They had to glamorize their look to become accepted.”

More information

“Dreamgirls” plays Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays through July 2 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, located at 303 Front St. N. in Issaquah, before moving to Everett. For tickets, call the box office at 425-392-2202 or go to www.villagetheatre.org/issaquah/dreamgirls.php.

 

 

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