In the decade since the ballyhooed 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls, Beyoncé skyrocketed, Jennifer Hudson catapulted (and took an Oscar with her), and the millennial generation was let in on one of Broadway’s modern treasures. And yet despite bubbling the zeitgeist, Dreamgirls didn’t make any such equal or triumphantly timed return to its Broadway birthplace of 1981. Perhaps that’s why there’s a palpable sense that director Casey Nicholaw’s new revival at London’s Savoy Theatre — the first ever on the West End — must, whether by fact or by feeling, pick up on the film’s erstwhile momentum; fortunately, it does so via both. Nicholaw’s retelling of the rise and fall of an R&B pop trio manages to honor its roots in Michael Bennett’s original Broadway production and pay tribute to the film (from which a bespoke tune, “Listen,” is included here on stage), yet the reason to see this Dreamgirls is to re-introduce an actress borne from the echoes of both.
Amber Riley, 31, who makes her West End debut as excoriated diva Effie White, entered pop culture with six chart-topping seasons playing high school soulstress Mercedes Jones on Glee; if these years are to be memorialized now, they should be as but a breezy vocal warm-up for Dreamgirls and, hopefully, a healthy sophomore career move for Riley. As Effie, Riley is an inexplicably inexhaustible source of energy with a voice so effortlessly powerful, it’s almost biblical. In mood, in octave, and in physicality, she effectively oscillates between polar dispositions — when she doesn’t stomp, she glides. The actress’s noticeable naïveté connects these extremes, but her youth actually ends up serving Effie’s eventual downfall, making her selfishness feel less rash, her jealousy less petty, and her decisions more impulsive opposite her equally youthful but cooler-headed bandmates Deena (Liisi LaFontaine, an impressive if delayed bloomer) and Lorell (a gaily toonish Carly Mercedes Dyer, understudy for Ibinabo Jack).
Nicholaw’s production chooses song over story, and set against an kinetic backstage puzzle of studio lights, steel, and silk curtains, voices are most celebrated here, and not just from Riley. Adam J. Bernard is a wide-eyed revelation as James “Thunder” Early, whose manic “Fake Your Way to the Top” is a human fire refusing to be extinguished, as is Jack’s ovation-worthy breakdown in the often-underconsidered “Ain’t No Party.” But it’s Riley, whose take on Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s legendary act-one closer “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is simply explosive. It’s a song loaded with almost preternaturally high expectations, and Riley steamrolls over them, forging her own ferocious path through the song’s familiar vocal and physical gestures. She refuses to let it serve as a cabaret climax, doubling and tripling down on the adrenaline in second-act follow-ups “I Am Changing” and “Listen” (reinvented here as a powerhouse 11 o’clock duet between Effie and Deena). Riley’s self-aware bag of tonal tricks is cheeky but no less jaw-dropping, and by the show’s end, you’ve realized that Effie’s declarative challenge in act one to her lover and tormentor — “But I have the voice, Curtis, I have the voice!” — is here a threatening hypothesis which Riley spends the next two hours conclusively proving.
It’s between the lyrics that Nicholaw’s Dreamgirls feels more blank than breathless. Across the cast, there’s a tangible lapse in naturalism when the orchestra goes silent and the actors are left to their own eponymous device (although, in fairness, Eyen’s book is not the gem in the 35-year-old crown). Certain songs even cringe— “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” finds a way to oversaturate Joe Aaron Reid’s already over-the-top but juicy performance as serpentine manager Curtis — but there’s enough to love otherwise to forgive select songs on the set list. This is Riley’s concert, after all, and it’s clear who the crowd is calling for an encore when it’s time to say goodbye. Assuming the tiny Savoy Theatre doesn’t crumble from the volume first. B+