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.