Backstage with Liisi LaFontaine (Deena Jones) from DREAMGIRLS at the Savoy

Dreamgirls has been and always will be one of my favourite musicals of all time so I'm sure we can all appreciate how much the London premiere production - opening tonight at the Savoy Theatre - has excited me. And to celebrate just that, I sat down with one of the show's biggest stars Liisi LaFontaine who plays Deena Jones to talk about the show's landmark arrival...

SN: There's obviously been a huge amount of hype surrounding Dreamgirls coming into the West End for 35 years. What's it like to be a major part in bringing that dream to reality?

LL: It's is so amazing and surreal. Dreamgirls has been done so many times in The States, so I wasn't expecting the level of excitement we were met with when they did the casting announcement. When I moved out here, we did a big photo shoot for promo and that was when I really realized how big of a deal this is. This show is larger than life and everyone working on it is incredible.

SN: You obviously have some amazing women having played the role before you - Sheryl Lee Ralph and Beyonce to name a couple. You've also played the role yourself on a couple of tours. Do you feel like other performances of the role have inspired yours and what are you doing with Deena now that is different to what you've done with her before?

LL: Of course I am inspired by all the wonderful Deenas who came before me; there have been so many incredible performances in this musical throughout the years. But I really felt that it was important to make Deena feel fresh and real, and not like a character. All three of the Dreams are such special, beautiful, different women. And for the show and the story to work, we all had to be very clear about our stories and our arcs. Our director Casey [Nicholaw] really stressed the importance of putting ourselves into the character to create something that feels organic and original. In the other productions I've done of this show, we didn't have as much time to play around and figure things out, so I do feel like this is the most well rounded my Deena has ever been.

SN: Deena is a character we are kind of made to hate for a while and then fall back in love with by the end of the show. How do you feel like you identify with the character?

LL: Yeah, she is the villain for a little while, unfortunately... but I personally think all of the girls are manipulated by different men (Effie and I by Curtis and Lorell by Jimmy) and at certain points they are just doing what they are told. But besides that fact, I identity with her is so many ways. I was really shy when I was younger, so I can relate to younger Deena. And now I feel very self assured and happy with myself and where I am in my life, so on that level, I identify with Deena at the end. I love playing her every night. We are very connected.

Liisi starring as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls

SN: Had you known Dreamgirls well before you came to do the project; what was it like landing the job and how did you go about it?

LL: Yes! It was one of the first musicals I ever saw, and I was obsessed with the movie when it came out. Then of course, I did a touring version of the show shortly before moving to the U.K. So I have a life long love for Dreamgirls. When I found out I landed the role I was in complete shock. I found out in May and didn't move until the end of September so I had a lot of time to freak out! I was just honored and so surprised.

SN: There are some incredible moments and musical numbers in this show. One of my favourites is the duet you share with Amber Riley who plays Effie, as well as all of the big group numbers you get the pleasure of leading, but what's your favourite moment that you get to play out on stage?

LL: There are so many fun numbers in the show. I love "Heavy, Heavy" in the first act because it's such a story telling song and that costume change is really fun and always surprises the audience.
"Listen" is my favorite song to sing without a doubt. Amber is so easy to sing with and the lyrics are so healing and really round out our stories. I get emotional singing it every single night!

SN: In contrast, what's your favourite moment that's happened to you so far off stage?

LL: I seriously have too many to name....this cast and crew are so fun. But if I had to choose one, probably the day Amber, Ibinabo and I went to go see Harry Potter. We had only known each other for about a week at that point and we just had the BEST time. It bonded us in a weird way. And that show is incredible so it blew our minds.

SN: We know what the show and the role means to you, but why do you think this classic musical has such a huge following behind it?

LL: I think it has a huge following because it's iconic. The music, the lyrics, the costumes... the story. It's rare to have a musical that is focused on three women, let alone black women, so I think people understand that it's something special. It's a story about finding yourself and self empowerment, and I think people gravitate to that.

SN: The show is obviously a massive sing as well as a lot of dance and acting, so what do you do after a show to wind down and catch your breath again? You're also currently in preview period so I'm sure it's hard to work around that as well!

LL: All of the leads do warm downs for our voices after the shows and make sure to get as much sleep as possible. This show is sooooo vocally demanding and the amount of energy we have to exert in every performance is exhausting. We also have rehearsals during the day because we are in previews so rest and lots of water is crucial.

The Dreams! (from left to right): Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in Dreamgirls

SN: Getting a bit more personal now: what was it that made you want to perform in the first place?

LL: Both of my parents are performers, so I guess it's just in my blood! I also grew up in Los Angeles, California, so I was surrounded by artists my whole entire life. Didn't really have a choice!

SN: I know it's a cliche to ask, but do American audiences differ to British ones for you?

LL: American audiences are traditionally a little louder/more involved, but these audiences have been crazy!!! I was worried that the audiences over here wouldn't be that responsive, but so far, they are louder than they are in The States... and we love it! We feed off that energy and it makes us want to give the show everything we have.

SN: There's obviously a lot of controversy at the moment in both Hollywood and Theatreland surrounding diversity both from a perspective of race and one of women and this show does a big job in helping break that barrier down, but how do you think we can go forward in both industries to make sure everyone is represented correctly?

LL: Yes, I'm very passionate about this topic. I can't believe it's such an issue...this is 2016, but here we are. I just think that in all industries, you should see EVERYONE for any job opportunities and it should go to the best person for the job. Period. Regardless of race or gender or any other factor. We have a long way to go, but I feel that the theatre community is really leading the pack when it comes to diversity; especially in New York, thanks to shows like Hamilton!

SN: Okay, now for a few silly quickfire questions: what's your favourite musical of all time?

LL: Either Dreamgirls or Ragtime!

SN: If you could play literally any character in any show ever - apart from Deena Jones - who would it be?

LL: I would love to do Mimi in Rent!

SN: And finally, if you were stuck on a desert island and could only take three records with you, which three would they be?

LL: Oooo tough! "Cry Me A River" by Justin Timberlake, "Love On Top" by BeyoncĂ© and "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers.

Dreamgirls officially opens tonight at the Savoy Theatre. Tickets are available here and you can read my review of the show's first preview here ahead of my re-review next Wednesday.

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