REVIEW: Dreamgirls - Original London Cast

Recording CoverIt's hard to believe that it's taken almost thirty-five years for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's dazzling Dreamgirls to be staged in London. It's also, perhaps, a little surprising that it's taken six months for Casey Nicholaw's UK premiere production to yield a cast recording, given that it opened to mostly very strong reviews and has been doing well at the box-office – particularly since neither the Broadway cast album nor the much more complete concert recording from 2001 is entirely satisfactory. That's unfortunate, because this is one of the great late-20th-Century theatre scores; in telling the story of the tempestuous rise of a Motown-style 60s girl group, composer Henry Krieger offers a whistle-stop tour through twenty years of (black) popular music. Krieger continually blurs the line between recitative and standalone arias so that the sung scenes bleed imperceptibly into the score's big takeaway hits; three and a half decades after it first premiered, the brilliance with which Krieger manipulates straight-from-the-radio pop, soul, r&b, and funk into a genuinely theatrical pop opera remains more or less unparalleled.

If you've been holding your breath for a perfect Dreamgirls, though, I'm afraid this isn't quite it. The production is by all accounts electrifying in the theatre, and if you've any regard for the material at all this is a recording you'll need to own, but it still stops short of being a definitive account of Krieger and Eyen's extraordinary score. It's a good album, and a lot of it is far better than that, but it isn't flawless. It was recorded live in the theatre, which brings pluses and minuses: the album captures the energy of a live performance very effectively, the central performances are terrific, the band tear into the score with tremendous verve, and it's fun (on the first listen) to hear the audience go wild at the end of each act. Since it was recorded live, though, the album doesn't quite offer a pristine, perfect reading of the score, and not everything comes across with as much clarity as it might on a recording made in a studio.

It also isn't a complete recording, though it's far fuller than the original Broadway cast album, which – in an act of musical vandalism second only to the evisceration of Stephen Sondheim's score for Follies on that show's original Broadway cast recording – presented the score's principal musical material in severely edited form, more or less in the manner of a contemporary pop album (some tracks even end with a fade-out). The London recording stretches to two discs, and it includes more or less all of the score's highlights, but there's pushing twenty minutes more material on the 2001 concert recording. Most of the missing material here is recitative and dialogue, and you don't necessarily need every note, but the edits, in terms of allowing you to follow the plot as you listen, are often rather abrupt, and there are places, particularly in the second act, where you'll be conscious that the album has just skipped a major plot point.

Purists may balk, too, at a couple of revisions. The Dreams medley at the top of Act Two is gone, replaced by an extended 'Love Love You Baby', the performance number we hear a snippet of at the very end of Act One. Later in the second act, a rewritten version of the film's Oscar-nominated 'Listen' with new lyrics by Willie Reale is added as a duet for Effie and Deena, a change which apparently originated in a 2009 US tour. 'Love Love You Baby' is neither better nor worse than the medley it replaces; 'Listen' offers the two leads another opportunity for a tonsils-on-the-ceiling belt-fest, and the new lyrics are effective enough, but the scene it's in worked well enough without it. It isn't an unwelcome addition, but it's not as if the moment needed fixing in the first place.

In the hands of Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley, though, 'Listen' is undeniably one of the album's highlights. The song may not be strictly necessary, but their rendition of it is thrilling. If, like me, you only know Riley from 'Glee' – a show I never enjoyed – she'll be a revelation here. It's fair to say that she doesn't eclipse Jennifer Holliday or Lillias White, her (recorded) predecessors in the role, but she's certainly their equal, and it's easy to see why she won the Olivier. She does a more than creditable job of 'And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going', the score's best-known number, but it's her 'I Am Changing' that raises goosebumps. LaFontaine is a fine Deena, Ibinabo Jack brings real fire to 'Ain't No Party', and Adam J. Bernard's Jimmy – the show's other Olivier-winning performance – is simply flawless.

There's strong work, too, from the performers in the smaller supporting roles, an impeccably tight band and chorus, and the album's right-here-right-now live atmosphere, for me, is (at least) adequate compensation for the occasional clumsiness of the editing and the slight muddiness of the mix. Overall? This isn't quite the album it could have been, but it's still an essential purchase.


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