If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Ivoryton Playhouse Presents Solid "Dreamgirls"

I haven't covered the Ivoryton Playhouse nearly as much as I've wanted to over the years, but I can honestly report that the venerable summer theatre's current production of "Dreamgirls" is easily the finest offering I've ever seen there. Ivoryton has often appeared outmatched by the big musicals it selects -- "Oliver" and "The Producers" are two recent examples -- and while "Dreamgirls" is far from a perfect production, it still manages to impress.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, "Dreamgirls" charts the rise of a Motown girl group in the early 1960s, The Dreams (obviously inspired by The Supremes), their ambitions to make it in a male-dominated industry and their quest for love sometimes in all the wrong places. "Dreamgirls" also details the radio payola scandals of the time and the slow but growing cross-over acceptance of black artists by white audiences. It includes many of the showbiz cliches you'd expect, but it also has a terrific score and, at Ivoryton, enough energy in the performances to make you a happy participant.

In the plum role of Effie, full-figured lead singer of The Dreams, Sheniqua Denise Trotman follows in the formidable footsteps of Jennifer Holliday (Tony winner, Broadway) and Jennifer Hudson (Oscar winner, movie). It is a demanding role that includes the signature number, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going", a powerhouse torch song that ends the musical's first act on a note of triumph. At least it should. At the matinee I caught, Miss Trotman strained for notes and lacked the passion this impossibly visceral song demands. It didn't help that director Lawrence Thelen allows a make-up table to remain center stage during the song, blocking Trotman's every move. This is one number where the actress should have the entire stage to herself. Otherwise, Trotman handles the role with the attitude and outsize personality required and redeems herself quite well with the musical's second best song in act two, "I Am Changing".

Without an Effie to dominate the proceedings, this more balanced production finds its strongest performance from Caliaf St. Aubyn. The actor manages to steal most of the evening playing Jimmy Early, a composite of James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard, that he achieves with head-spinning alacrity. He is simply electric and it's difficult to focus elsewhere when this dynamo hits the stage. Damian Norfleet's silky smooth agent is also a commanding presence and Jennlee Shallow, while never truly charismatic enough to play the musical's Diana Ross stand-in, still looks fabulous and sings like a dream. Ashley Jeudy is also a ball of fire with a belter's voice as the third member of "The Dreams".

The lack of scenery (that make-up table is the one major prop )really works to Ivoryton's advantage here, leaving the stage basically clear for the upstage orchestra, a consistent and important visual presence. To this end Musical Director Michael Morris does a terrific job and his musicians are first-rate. Todd L. Underwood's choreography nicely captures the style of R&B performance while Njaye Olds' costuming does an impressive job covering several years of ever-changing styles. All told ,this is a "Dreamgirls" very much worth seeing.

"Dreamgirls" continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse, where it is selling out, through September 1. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.767.7318 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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