Sunday, October 2

Dreamgirls – Leeds Grand Theatre

The tough world of showbiz has always been fertile ground for musical theatre and Dreamgirls puts the spotlight on the ruthless music industry.

It’s a story as long as recorded music has been around when three young black women form a vocal harmony group performing in 1960s Detroit, and thanks to a ruthless manager find success before their friendship implodes as the money rolls in.  If that sounds familiar it might be based on a certain girl group who reigned supreme in the 60s as the sound of young America.

Effie White has the biggest voice and attitude in The Dreams, but shy bandmate Deena has the right image that hard charging former mechanic turned manager Curtis Taylor Jr sees has the biggest potential to cross over from soul to pop. He forces the vulnerable Effie out as their bandmate Lorell stands on the side-lines of some classic band strife.

Along the way they sing back up to R n B legend Jimmy Early, who Curtis is also trying to persuade to turn pop.  As the womanising soul man, Brandon Lee Sears is full of manic energy and mastery of some challenging moves dominating much of the early action.

Photo: Matt Crockett

But in a company full of great voices The Voice’s Nicole Raquel Dennis rattles the foundations of this venerable theatre as Effie unleashing her massive, rich voice.  The big showstopper in this show is And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, where Effie realises she is out of the group, and you will not hear a better vocal performance all year. Dennis utterly inhabits a big song full of despair, self-loathing, rejection and ultimately defiance, which earned her a very, very rare first half standing ovation…and rightly so as it just felt real.

The focus then shifts to Denna, and her new beau the increasing unhinged Curtis, as they find fame and fortune.  It’s helpful that Natalie Kassanga played Diana Ross in Motown: The Musical as she subtly traces the harsh price that’s paid to go from back-up singer to world famous diva. Her duet with Dennis on the other showstopper, Listen, is high octane stuff full of love and hurt.

The experienced Dom Hartley-Harris selflessly plays Curtis as having few redeeming qualities earning a few boos at curtain call. Newcomer Paige Peddie is great fun as the initially naïve third Dreamgirl, but she soon toughens up.

It’s not surprising Tom Eyen’s book and Henry Krieier’s score picked up awards as they perfectly replicate the joyous sound of all those vocal harmony groups who exploded out of Detroit, and the live band in the pit clearly were having great fun with their pop gems. Casey Nicholaw’s precise synchronised choreography draws out that key element in the global success of those 60s soul groups.

Tim Harley’s costumes are simultaneously elegant and over the top as befits the period. A special backstage mention to Head of Wigs Lee-Ellen Wilson who has a very busy night with the endless hairpieces constantly changing to reflect the time shifts from the sixties to seventies.

The only slight quibble is despite a few nods to the prevailing political racial tensions around these acts there’s a lack of real context for how important it was that The Supremes, The Chiffons, The Four Tops et al made it into the mainstream of a country still making sense of the Civil Rights Movement and the death of Dr King.

If you loved Motown: The Musical, or just love pop classics by female harmony groups, then this big in every sense show is perfect for a post pandemic night out.

Dreamgirls is Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 9th July. To book call 0113 243 0808 or visit https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/dreamgirls/

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 22nd June 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★

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