Preview Review: DREAMGIRLS at the Savoy Theatre

Just a note before this review gets into full swing: my opinion here is entirely based upon the first preview of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre on November 19th, 2016. While my opinion in this review is overwhelmingly positive, I do think it’s unfair to judge a show from so early on in its preview period so – as a result – a review of the post-opening version of the show will follow in December.

I’ve been a massive fan of Dreamgirls for the better part of a decade when I was gifted the Original Broadway Cast Recording, so I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when Sonia Friedman openly showed interest in bringing the show to the London stage for the first time to celebrate the show’s 35th anniversary. Fast forward a few years and here we are – following the first preview – and I can hand on heart say that I have never in my life seen a first preview (or any show for that matter) that has filled the audience with as much electricity and energy as this show did tonight. The magic that was created on that stage tonight is a testament to its slick production value and phenomenal cast and if that’s what it’s like in its first preview, I cannot wait to see what comes of it later in the run.

For those who don’t know the story of the show, it follows three young performers - Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson and Effie White - as they try and make their shot at fame. They’re given their big break by a manager called Curtis who also looks after famed recording star Jimmy Early and alas, their career is born. The Dreamettes fast become their own solo act The Dreams but as Curtis starts to favour Deena’s beauty over Effie’s talents, Ms White’s diva side is comes out and she is forced out of the group. Through the rest of the show, we follow the battle between Effie and the rest of the world as the girls balance careers, love affairs and a lack of self-worth in the big world of show business.

Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell Robinson and Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early in rehearsals for Dreamgirls

I was worried that this new production would try and focus heavily on the film, but I was delighted to see that the show is almost entirely identical to the Original Broadway production from a book and score perspective. That is, apart from the addition of "Listen" which was written for the movie version of the show specifically for BeyoncĂ©, but it was great to see the song be given new lyrics and a new meaning in this production: instead of Deena singing it to Curtis like she does in the film, it’s now a duet between Deena and Effie as a way of rekindling their friendship and bringing them back together as friends, thus giving that storyline full closure; It was an amazing moment and the entire crowd went wild for it.

Look, I know the show is perfect anyway, but we must talk about what really makes this production something special: the cast. There is not a single weak link in this group of outstanding actors and – more importantly – singers. Liisi LaFontaine as Deena Jones was truly sublime giving Miss Jones a new side to her that wasn’t loveable or hateable: she just felt human. Her vocals were equally sublime and proved her to be a real powerhouse. The same has to be said about Ibinabo Jack as Lorrell Robinson whose performance was hilarious, as well as Joe Aaron Reid as Curtis and Adam J. Bernard as Jimmy. All three of them gave outstanding performances alongside the rest of this flawless cast and it was their roof-lifting vocals that got us on our feet so frequently.

Liisi LaFontaine and Joe Aaron Reid as Curtis Taylor Jr and Deena Jones respectively in rehearsals for Dreamgirls

But the real woman who got everyone to their feet on a mammoth four occasions was the incomparable Amber Riley. I knew from the moment she performed “And I’m Telling You” on Glee way back in 2009 that she needed to play Effie White one day. In fact, Riley did audition for the role in the 2008 movie adaptation but was ultimately overseen because of Jennifer Hudson, who then went on to win the Oscar. A happy misfortune perhaps as it means that she’s here now making a name for herself in one of the most iconic roles of all time… and she is already killing it. I don’t think I have ever heard someone live with such awestriking vocals like Riley who not only had me wowed, but also had me moved. Her performance of “And I’m Telling You” is most definitely the best moment I have seen in the theatre all year – maybe even of all time – and that moment of sheer beauty and raw emotion is worth the ticket price alone. It’s impressive when it happens once, but it’s unparalled when she manages to give further outstanding performances of songs like “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only” in the second act, also giving her standing ovations. I can barely put into words how mind-blowing her performance was and it’s one that I think I’ll remember for many years to come.

This production is visually beautiful as well. Casey Nicholaw has done a fantastic job in directing and choreographing this show and making sure that there is as much glitz and as much glamour on stage as possible. His vision for how to utilise the massive stage at the Savoy is fantastic and with the help of set designer Tim Hatley, they turn the stage into a world of its own. Yes, it’s minimalist, but it works for the piece and is enough to not overpower the incredible performances. Costumes on the other hand are anything but minimal: the more glitter the better it seems and it really adds to the authenticity of the piece and helps further build this world full of fame and glamour. Gregg Barnes is back in his prime doing what he does best in the most perfect of ways and it’s an effort that does not go amiss.

Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine (from left to right) rehearsing for Dreamgirls

Even after the first preview, I can hand on heart say that this show is a sensation and will continue to be as the run goes on. I already cannot wait for Amber Riley to inevitably be handed her Olivier Award next April; I already cannot wait for this show to run and run and run; I already cannot wait to see this show again next month! It’s selling extremely well so you’re going to be hard pressed to do so, but beg borrow and steal to get a ticket to this one. This is one of the biggest West End hits we have seen in years and it makes me very proud to say so.

Dreamgirls is currently playing at the Savoy Theatre, currently booking until Saturday May 6th, 2017. Buy tickets here.

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