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‘Dreamgirls’ a foot-tapping, entertaining dream of a production

The cast of “Dreamgirls” will open its run on Friday, Feb. 7, at the African American Performing Arts Center. (Courtesy of Musical Theatre Southwest)

The musical “Dreamgirls” is based on the all-women vocal group The Supremes, and more broadly about the music industry in the United States, specifically Motown Records, which launched the careers of a whole slew of brilliant African American artists beginning in the early 1960s.

With its foot-tapping rhythm and blues score and its classic rags-to-riches story, “Dreamgirls” is stupendously entertaining, especially as presented in the joint production by Musical Theatre Southwest and the African American Performing Arts Center.

“Dreamgirls” tells the story of the Dreamettes, a black girl group hired to sing back-up for the charismatic singing sensation James “Thunder” Early, until their manager Curtis decides to launch them on their own as the Dreams, replacing lead singer Effie with Deena, a move that is the main source of conflict and drama in the play.

Like August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Dreamgirls” dramatizes the exploitation of black talent by white producers and recording artists. When Effie’s brother C.C. writes a potential hit, “Cadillac Car,” we hear the song first by Jimmy Early and his dynamite band, and then as a No. 1 hit by Dave and the Sweethearts, but with all the soul siphoned out of it.

Curtis represents the kind of ambition that can be soul-destroying, replacing Effie with Deena not only as leader of the band but in his bedroom as well. He is played with cold calculation by Lowell Burton Jr., who is also an excellent singer, demonstrated especially in “When I First Saw You,” where he expresses his feelings for Deena.

The cast is uniformly great, and musical director Joel Gelpe has some marvelous singers to complement the outstanding musicians in the orchestra. First among them is Patricia Brown as Effie, whose Act 1 closing number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” fully exploits her gorgeous voice and is one of the highlights of the show. Her counterparts in the Dreamettes are meticulously characterized by Alexandra Germain and Jasmine Bernard. Paul Ashby captures C.C.’s conflicted feelings when he continues as songwriter for the Dreams even after his sister departs from the group.

The play chronicles the transition from rhythm and blues and soul to less artistically satisfying but more lucrative popular music, orchestrated in the play by Curtis. It is no surprise therefore that the best song in the show, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” is from the period before the commercial transition occurs. This rhythm and blues number features all the lead players, but is a fully-choreographed ensemble piece as well, and beautifully done. The number also permits Hasani Olujimi as Jimmy to demonstrate his remarkable talent as a performer — actor, singer, and dancer. Olujimi excels again in “Jimmy’s Rap,” where his character’s resemblance to James Brown is especially apparent.

“Dreamgirls” requires a huge cast, and they are well-directed by Ashley Murphy and beautifully choreographed by Kale Brown. Shannon Scheffler and Katy Jacome’s costume design is gorgeous, especially the vibrant colorful dresses adorning the women. Cameron Illidge-Welch’s hair design is also impressive, while Lucas Zuniga’s lighting design captures all the glamour and mercurial allure of the entertainment industry.

“Dreamgirls” is playing at the African American Performing Arts Center, 310 San Pedro NE, Albuquerque and closes Feb. 23. Go to mtsabq.org or call 265-9119 for reservations.

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