If you go to Dreamgirls expecting a biopic musical about The Supremes, you’ll be surprised: The show actually is a fictionalized tale inspired not just by the legendary female trio from the ‘60s, but other Motown-era acts including The Shirelles and James Brown.
Still, the look, feel and sound of The Supremes flavor every bit of Dreamgirls, a Pittsburgh Musical Theater production that is playing at the Byham Theater through March 19. The show’s lead trio of women – played by Delana Flowers (Lorrell), Anastasia Talley (Deena) and Adrianna M. Cleveland (Effie) – wear those legendary, sparkly, pizzazz-filled gowns for which The Supremes were known, built by costume designer Tony Sirk. The characters in this band – called The Dreamettes, then The Dreams, in the show – go through at least a half-dozen costume changes throughout the show.
One of those costumes, a dazzling sequined blue gown, had such a mirror effect that it briefly created the illusion of blue ocean waves on the walls of the Byham. And the woman wearing this gown – Effie, beautifully played by Cleveland, a Pittsburgh native – may be part of an ensemble-like cast, but she indisputably plays the part that needs the most powerful vocals, and she gets the loudest applause at the end. Cleveland’s feisty Effie can hit and hold notes for an awe-inspiring amount of time at several points throughout the play.
The real-life-inspired, but fictionalized Dreamgirls storyline takes the audience through the history and evolution of American R&B music in Detroit. The plot begins with the manipulative Curtis discovering The Dreamettes at a talent show, and claiming the young women and declaring himself their manager. Curtis – played by Monteze Freeland, who trained at Point Park University – arranges for the ladies to sing backup with R&B star Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Of course, a lot of drama ensues, with the women competing for star roles, and having ill-fated love affairs and crushes: Effie falls for Curtis, and Lorrell begins an affair with married man Jimmy.
You won’t hear the songs of The Supremes in Dreamgirls, but the show has its own energetic soundtrack with fun, original music. Memorable songs include the title tune “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only,” sung by Effie, Deena and Lorrell; and the moving, empowering “I Am Changing” from Effie. The funniest musical moment comes when Jimmy – hilariously portrayed by LaTrea Rembert, a Point Park graduate – sings his song “I Meant You No Harm.” The song begins softly as almost a ballad, then dramatically shifts gears into a zany rap where Rembert declares “Jimmy got soul!”
Although Pittsburgh Musical Theater productions often feature students from the company’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory, the cast of Dreamgirls – almost all African-American – is a cast of professional adults. They give a delightful performance that transports the audience back to another era in pop-culture history and bring a new appreciation to this classic R&B music.
Dreamgirls continues March 17-19 at the Byham Theater. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $9.25 to $54.75. For tickets and more information about Pittsburgh Musical Theater, click here.