BRANTLEY IN BRITAIN
LONDON — When Effie White says that she’s nobody’s backup singer, it’s obvious she’s just speaking the simple truth. Never mind that when she makes this pronouncement, with a certainty that is as natural to her as breathing, it’s still early in Casey Nicholaw’s supercharged revival of “Dreamgirls,” a popular hit at the Savoy Theater here.
From the moment she arrives fresh off the bus from Chicago in 1960s Harlem, this young vocalist is forever, undeniably front and center. And that has nothing to do with where she’s standing on the stage.
Effie is portrayed by Amber Riley, in a performance that has Londoners responding with the frenzied adulation their Broadway equivalents are according Bette Midler (in “Hello, Dolly!”) and Glenn Close (in “Sunset Boulevard”). At 31, and several decades younger than those much-mythologized actresses, Ms. Riley is demonstrating that with the right chops, even a baby diva can help a war horse gallop like a colt.
Surprised? Ms. Riley is best known as one of the cheerfully competitive singing high school students from “Glee.” And there’s been much evidence in recent years that small-screen (or even big-screen) presence can evaporate in live theater.
Yet Ms. Riley exudes the casual, instinctive authority of one to the proscenium born. All she has to do is widen her eyes, purse her lips and then open her mouth to emit a radiant cascade of sound, and theatergoers are all but fainting in the aisles. Backup singer? You might as well call Tom Brady a bench warmer.
It takes as much confidence as talent to stand out in this “Dreamgirls,” which opened late last year. Mr. Nicholaw’s reinterpretation of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s 1981 show, a sort of morality musical about the price of success for black singers of the 1960s forced to pander to white audiences, is so high energy that you may feel like taking a nap almost as soon as it starts.
But Mr. Nicholaw, the director and choreographer, and his top-drawer design team aren’t about to let you nod off. The show’s look is all high-sheen glitter and gloss, as if the set (by Tim Hatley) as well as the costumes (by Gregg Barnes) were made up of sequins and lamé, klieg-lighted to blind (by Hugh Vanstone).
It has also been amplified to deafen. And the choreography, at its pulsing best in the athletic set piece “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” has enough furious precision to keep you in a vicarious sweat.
The show comes roaring at you like a souped-up, chrome-plated luxury sedan (perhaps the “Cadillac Car” of the show’s savvy hymn to aspirational marketing). Mr. Nicholaw’s production practices the gospel of razzle-dazzle showbiz that is preached by its leading catalyst (and villain), a double-dealing manager named Curtis Taylor Jr. (the snake-hipped Aaron Reid).
This “Dreamgirls” isn’t subtle, and it doesn’t have the iconoclastic impact of Michael Bennett’s original Broadway staging. But it makes a convincing case for this portrait of a Supremes-like singing group as an enduring, crowd-rousing entertainment with a terrific pastiche score.
The fever of being hungry, talented and thwarted — as it’s experienced by black R&B singers with mainstream dreams in a culturally segregated America — glows from every element of this version. Eager ambition is cannily used as the production’s revved-up motor.
Sometimes the show’s bright and talented (mostly American) ensemble takes that message too much to heart. Adam J. Bernard is well cast as a wild, James Brown-esque singer who’s been asked to tone it down for supper club audiences. But he could, in fact, tone down the character’s clownishness. And the contemporary pop voice of Liisi LaFontaine, as the Diana Ross figure who becomes Effie’s rival onstage and in bed, could be leavened with more period silkiness.
Ms. Riley, though, never seems to be trying too hard in a role that inevitably has her competing with memories of Jennifer Holliday (who received a Tony in the original Broadway production) and Jennifer Hudson (an Oscar winner for the 2006 film) in the same part. It could be argued that Ms. Riley is too healthy and secure-seeming to embody the self-destructive Effie.
But she’s excellent in showing the connection between a talent that knows its own strength and a demanding temperament. And when she sings, Effie’s pain and anger, vulnerability and power, meld into one sparkling, mellifluous river.
Her emotionally supple interpretation of the knockout first-act curtain number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is as stirring as any I’ve heard. And you thought the orchestra was loud? It’s purely pianissimo compared with the cacophony that erupts from the audience when Ms. Riley completes that ballad.