Theater review: ‘Dreamgirls’ by 2nd Star Productions at The Bowie Playhouse

From left to right: “The Dreams:” Rowan Campbell as Michelle, Ashley Lyles as Deena, Kayla Adams as Effie and Karla Maiden-Vazquez as Lorrell. Photo by Nate Jackson Photography.

Buoyed by the raucous applause and enthusiastic shouts of supportive friends, families and otherwise entranced community members, the cast of “Dreamgirls” came very close to singing from the roof of the Bowie Playhouse for their opening performance on Friday night. The classic musical found new life in an energetic cast and a generous audience, once again proving its staying power under the eye of director Rikki Howie Lacewell.

…an energetic cast…Adams…an exceptionally talented singer and a masterful actress…a strong vocal ensemble with clean and clear harmonies…

First produced on Broadway in 1981, “Dreamgirls” follows Effie White (Kayla Adams) and the “Dreamettes” (later transitioning to the more mature “Dreams”) as they make their way into the mystical and dangerous world of show business in the 1960s. Effie, who finds love and heartbreak with car salesman and talent manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (the friendly and sleazy Rowan Campbell), is demoted to backup singer and later fired entirely in favor of the slimmer Deena Jones (the serious and broad-eyed Ashley Lyles).

In the iconic (and comically difficult, vocally) role of Effie White, Adams is a natural. The Bowie State graduate riffs his way to high heaven and climbs the vocal staircase with ease. In the one-ending (and infamous) “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going,” Adams’ belt is like a battle cry, or a heartbreaking sob, or anything in between. Between verses, she stares out at the audience, as if asking if we can possibly get her out of the mess she’s in, since every character in the play has left her behind. One audience member shouted out during one of these pregnant pauses, “Sing, girl!” and I had to agree. Adams deftly handles every note and every emotional beat, proving herself to be an exceptionally talented singer and a masterful actress.

The musical is not all doom and gloom. As the soulful R&B star Jimmy “James Thunder” Early, Ryan Holmes provides most of the laughs in this production. Holmes does indeed have a soul. From his very first note he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Even after recovering from a rapid change accident, Holmes showed courage and agility (both vocal and physical) in his numerous, diegetic appearances. He pointed directly to audience members in one song, prompting shouts of delight. His radiant charisma and deep singing made him incredibly credible as a highly sought-after star of the time. Sometimes I wondered if 2nd Star had plucked Holmes from his worldwide tour as a modern rock star. As Jimmy’s romantic partner and comedic partner-in-crime, Lorrell Robinson, Karla Maiden-Vazquez also garnered quite a few laughs in the first act for her youthful desire.

Adams and Holmes are not alone with their vocal talent. The standout feature of this production is certainly its handling of the fast-moving score which has the ability to induce anxiety in even the most experienced performers. Musical director LeVar Betts built a strong vocal ensemble throughout the show with clean and clear harmonies. These songs are accompanied by simple and striking choreographies, also by Lacewell, which are often stimulating but sometimes repetitive. There is clearly a broad spectrum of dance experience across the cast and Lacewell uses charged movements to ensure conformity during large group numbers.

Unfortunately, the artists’ vocal prowess was significantly hampered by the production’s biggest pitfall: the microphones. This production uses a live orchestra (and a talented one at that) and also equips the lead actors with microphones. Cast members without microphones were completely drowned out when they had a song or a solo, and the vast majority of their songs and lines sounded tinny and distant, as if they were being cast through an old telephone speaker. While it was clear that most of the audience knew “Dreamgirls” well, anyone who hadn’t seen the show before (like me) was certainly at risk of losing a lot of the plot. For example, I didn’t realize Curtis was a car salesman until I read the plot synopsis after the show. Due to the loud and boisterous nature of the show, much of the diction was too loud or was completely lost depending on whether an actor’s microphone was too close or too far from his face.

While some technical aspects were frustrating (and will hopefully be ironed out during the run), the show’s costumes were stunning. Quentin Nash Sagers’ dresses and suits are flashy, varied and full of glamor and do justice to their iconic predecessors. Masterful rapid changes spread production. One quick change from “Dreamettes” happened so quickly and smoothly that the crowd didn’t have time to respond with their usual “oohs” and “ahhs.” I lost count, but it seemed like each ensemble member had donned at least fifteen different outfits during the show, each as stunning as the last.

2nd Star’s production of “Dreamgirls” brought life to the Bowie Playhouse, delivering a story of black joy and femininity that needed to be celebrated in a community it clearly resonates with, if the thunderous standing ovation is any indication. My only wish is that I could hear every classic comeback or satisfying vocal acrobatics.

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

“Dreamgirls” runs through June 29, 2024, presented by 2nd Star Productions at The Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr, Bowie, MD 20715. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit online.

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