Left – Zenya Carmellotti, Anna Francesca Armenia, Sharon Wills. Cover – Gareth Jacobs. Photos – Belinda Strodder.
Right from the opening beats when this story about an all-girl group preparing to perform at the grand Apollo Theatre begins, the audience knows that they are in for a musical treat with Dreamgirls.
Entering a talent quest is the start of a journey for these girls that will involve emotional upheaval and break-ups as they make their way to stardom.
Dreamgirls originally premiered on Broadway over 30 years ago, yet this is the first time that it has been performed live on an Australian stage. The fact that almost every character is African-American is the main reason that producers have been loath to stage it here. The show itself, though and especially the music, are gold.
The story centres around Effie White the lead singer, who gets pushed out of the group to make way for Deena Jones and a 'smoother sound' – so that the group can cross-over on the charts and be more accepted by 'white' audiences.
The similarities between the Dreams as the group comes to be known, and Diana Ross and The Supremes is quite obvious, and there's even the inclusion of a Berry Gordy-styled character, Curtis Taylor Jnr.
Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) wrote a fast-paced story, with a number of strong characters lead by Effie, and a contiuous supply of great songs (Cadillac Car, Family, Dreamgirls, One Night Only), with a showstopper that every Broadway show dreams about - And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going that closes the first Act.
All of this was originally expertly staged and choreographed by the brilliant Michael Bennett.
That's a lot to live up to.
StageArt don't seem to shy away from complex, difficult to cast musicals though. Earlier this year they produced the Australian premiere of Into The Heights, set in Brooklyn's Hispanic community. That production knocked everyone aside with the amazingly talented cast and production standards. The bar was raised very high.
Dreamgirls gets close to that standard. The vibrant cast is without doubt, once again a major asset. While not African-American, the cast is culturally diverse enough to pull it off and every one is an exceptional singing talent.
Zenya Carmellotti (Lorrell Robinson), Sharon Wills (Michelle Morris), Djon Alexander (CC White) and Augustin Tchantcho (Marty) are all impressive.
Gareth Jacobs (James 'Thunder' Early) manages to steal a lot of the attention, but is best when his fine voice soars. Winston Hillyer (Curtis Taylor Jr) proves to be both a strong actor and a great singer with a rich voice – When I First Saw You being a highlight.
Anna Francesca Armenia (Deena Jones) has the difficult role of playing a character that lives in the shadow of a much larger personality, but she performs this well, proving that she's a talent to watch.
Thando Sikwila (Effie White) makes her stage debut in this mammoth challenge of a role. A superb singer, who knows how to sell a song, she seems at times a little wary in the dramatic moments of the story. With time though, she should settle into the performance and allow Effie to truly unravel. Still an accomplished debut.
A technical glitch on opening night caused an unnecessary moment at the focal point of Cadillac Car, but the overall staging of this production remains very high with Jason Bovaird's lighting design giving the show the necessary atmosphere. Daniel Harvey's costumes and Lucy Wilkins' wigs contribute to the great look of the show.
One annoyance was the stage crew moving set pieces during Effie's Act One finale. Perhaps a more appropriate time should be considered.
Director Terence O'Connell, Choreographer Darren Stack and Musical Director Tyson Legg all ensure that the performers shine.
Dreamgirls is an achievement that StageArt should be proud of, giving culturally diverse performers an opportunity to step into the limelight and allowing audiences the opportunity to see yet another great show.
music by Henry Krieger | lyrics and book by Tom Eyen
Directed by Terence O'Connell
Venue: Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran VIC
Dates: 29 May – 14 June, 2015
Tickets: $59 – $45
Bookings: 8290 7000 | www.chapeloffchapel.com.au