Reviewed by Bob Verini
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
Through April 17
Let’s start by talking about the song, and if you’re reading about Dreamgirls you already know what song I mean. It’s the one that everyone’s always waiting for, the one that practically single-handedly justifies a revival of the Tom Eyen-Henry Krieger-Michael Bennett 60s pop musical in and of itself. It stands as America’s national anthem of the love that dare not say “get the f— out, you bastard.”
I’ve seen “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” sung in performance over a dozen times. I saw it earn Jennifer Holliday a standing ovation mid-number during a late Broadway preview, and then a Tony months later. I saw it bring Jennifer Hudson an Oscar on screen, and Constance Jewell Lopez an LA Drama Critics Award locally, and those are only a few of the kudos that have greeted past interpreters of “Effie White,” the plus-size diva whose lover-manager tosses her out of her singing group and out of his life. Is there anyone who could blast “And I Am Telling You” to anything other than a tumultuous reception? Katy Perry? Tony Bennett? The Three Tenors?
More to the point, given that any lady assigned that role and that number must have powerful chops to sell it: Is there any possible differentiator between Effie Whites such that one could reasonably say, “Wow, they can both sing the song, but Effie X just has something that Effies Y and Z do not”?
Prior to seeing Robert Longbottom’s visually breathtaking production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, I wouldn’t have said so. But not to take anything away from Jennifer, Jennifer, Constance and a score of other gifted divas, the fact is that in this dazzling revival Moya Angela offers up an Effie White who is more than the sum of her size, height, plot function, and fancy vocal riffs up and down the scale. Hers is a deeper, richer Effie than certainly I’ve ever seen, and probably you too.
To understand why, I offer a brief review of the setup. Effie is a mainstay of the pop trio “Dreamettes” or “Dreams” as they’re variously called; she’s a dynamo and a handful, the hard-driving lead singer flanked by slim backups Deena (Jasmin Richardson) and Lorrell (Brittney Johnson). When fast talking hustler Curtis (Scott A. People) seduces them with a new set of dreams of stardom, he seduces Effie, too, and her reign seems complete.
But then she’s demoted to backup behind tall-drink-of-water Deena when Curtis thinks the group needs a new image. This brings to the fore Effie’s long-held insecurities about her weight and her man’s evident roving eye, leading to illnesses real or imagined, missed rehearsals and high-handed behavior. (It can’t help that the group’s most recent shot at the Hit Parade goes “Heavy, heavy/You got so heavy baby”). Cut to showtime in Vegas, as M.I.A. Effie suddenly breezes in only to discover tall, thin newbie Michelle Morris (Danielle Truitt) in her wig and dress.
That the resulting shitstorm plays so grippingly is partly due to Longbottom’s careful, patient direction. He sees to it that the signals — Effie’s arrogance, Curtis’s tomcatting ways — are pointedly planted earlier; they’re not just talked about here at the end of Act One, we’ve also seen and felt them. The director takes the time to have the various complex character relationships register, including those involving Effie’s songwriting brother CC (John Devereaux), who’s helpless in his own psychological vise. As a result, we’re acutely aware of all the tensions suddenly bubbling up to the surface. Nor does it hurt that sound designer Julie Ferrin sees to it that the lyrics and dialogue of this legendarily over-miked musical have a fighting chance to make it to our ears.
But through it all, there’s the artistry of Moya Angela at work. Watch how slowly she allows the realization of all the betrayals to hit her. Watch how her reactions are manifested physically, in stages, as she sags and then pulls herself back together. Listen to the way she reacts differently to the fair and unfair (as she sees them) charges being leveled at her. Especially effective is her ambivalence when Curtis says “You been late, you been mean/And gettin’ fatter all the time”—She can’t deny any of those accusations, but you see her eyes flash as she decides to combat the one nearest at hand: “Now you’re lyin! You’re lyin!/I’ve never been so thin.”
They’re all stacked against her, even this new girl Michelle, this interloper, and Angela doubles in two on “I’m not feeling well, I’ve got pain,” before pleading “For seven years I’ve sung with you/I was your sister,” only to be met with the group’s rejection: “You were our trouble…It’s all over.”
And then comes the song, and here’s my best, most objective evidence that Angela’s rendition is something different: The audience doesn’t applaud. You can feel they want to — the audience always wants to applaud this number in advance, to acknowledge they know it and are expecting a humdinger. But in this production there’s a hush, and no one dares applaud, because Angela’s acting is making Effie’s pain too real to interrupt with vulgar clapping.
The ballad becomes a real plea: The lady thinks she has a chance to win Curtis back, to win them all back, and she invests her argument with full commitment until she recognizes the effort as hopeless. Then, when she lets it rip vocally, it’s not a stunt but something coming from her guts. No self-conscious vocal hijinks here, just a profound expression of an artist whose artistry has been rejected and she won’t stand for it. “You’re gonna love me” is no appeal for applause, but a promise.
I have never seen every beat of this number acted so fully and so well.
And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Angela’s first time at this rodeo: She’s already played Effie in the national Broadway tour (and won an award for it, natch). All I’m saying is, she’s the Effie of Effies in my experience, creating a fully-realized character whose bravura performance of her big number is an acting tour de force above all. If you are up to here with “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” as I kind of was, you mustn’t let any malaise deter you from seeing this one. (If you miss it at La Mirada, where it runs through April 17, you could pick it up May 7-9 at Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center.)
There’s plenty else to recommend this revival, not least the design team of Robin Wagner (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Ken Billington (lighting). They’ve got a boatload of awards among them, including Wagner’s Tony for the original set back in 1982-83, and their collaboration on the play of light, color, and moving panels is both simple and staggeringly effective. Harold Wheeler’s unforgettable original orchestrations are ably managed by musical director Dennis Castellano, and the cast is uniformly excellent.
But I’ll never forget this “Dreamgirls” as an unexpected encounter with Moya Angela and Robert Longbottom, reinvigorating material I had thought beyond reinvention.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; Wed-Thurs. 7:30 p.m.; Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; through April 17. (Additional performances May 7-9 at Valley Performing Arts Center, Northridge). 562-944-9801, or 714-994-6310, or www.lamiradatheatre.com. Running time: two hours 30 minutes with one intermission.