I must have been one of the few audience members who had not seen Dreamgirls, the movie, nor Nicole Raquel Dennis from the TV talent show The Voice.
The former was probably an advantage as having now looked at clips online with big star names I am glad to have experienced this live show fresh and with no comparisons to make. The latter was an even greater advantage because when the singer came into her own with the massive showstoppers I had the delight of discovering for myself what a genuine talent Nicole Raquel Dennis really is.
The story does not claim to be based on real characters, but it is obviously a take on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes and James Brown, but in this performance at least the show is more about the singer who was sacked, here called Effie White, which is the role sung by Nicole Raquel Dennis – and that amazing song And I Am Telling You. Other musicals have been closer to the actual Diana Ross et al story but it is always in our minds as we watch these fictional characters, their ambitions, heartbreak and success.
Nicole Raquel Dennis
Paige Peddie and Natalie Kassanga, Nicole Raquel Dennis
Brandon Lee Sears with Paige Peddie, Nicole Raquel Dennis and Natalie Kassanga,
While Nicole Raquel Dennis steals the show (I guess due to that end of Act One vocal tour de force the character always does) the other most impressive performance was from a hugely energetic and gloriously voiced Brandon Lee Sears as the soul singer Jimmy Early, whose career declines as the Dreams’ star rises. He is a real slick and smooth operator with moves and energy that are exhausting just to watch.
You can just sit back and enjoy a fast-paced, virtually non-stop sung show, with glorious sounds and looks particularly of the swinging sixties as we follow the careers of Effie, Lorrell and Deena who transform from The Dreamettes to The Dreams. It also dips its toes into the social changes facing the United States in the fifties and sixties, both race and gender.
Natalie Kassanga as Deena Jones remains likeable throughout the show as she makes the transformation from a naïve, star-struck girl to a global phenomenon, but who wants to be an artist and eventually break away from her controlling manager, Curtis Taylor Jr.
Paige Peddie is comedy gold as Lorrell, completing the trio, with impeccable timing, sassy ways and also a powerful voice. The kind-hearted girl also grows up and ditches Jimmy after seven years waiting for him to “do the right thing”.
As you would expect from a bit of a girl power show Effie also gets her own back and succeeds as a solo artist after being first demoted from lead singer for being the wrong sound (and look I guess) and finally dumped altogether. Sadly, such was not the case when one of the real Supremes was similarly given the elbow.
The only problem is that such is the huge stage presence and awesome vocals of Nicole Raquel Dennis, the Deena character never really gets to show what makes her special. Okay, so she looks the part but she is not given strong enough songs to demonstrate the “sound” that her Svengale sees and exploits. This also applies to the songs in general, with the exception of And I Am Telling You, which won an Oscar for Jennifer Hudson from the film version of the 1981 stage show, which are pleasant enough but not a stitch on the Motown classics.
Strong performance also come from Dom Hartley-Harris as Curtis Taylor Jr whose manipulation and double dealing could reduce him to a panto villain, yet it is clear this is a murky, corrupt, back-stabbing industry, particularly at a time of rampant racial discrimination, sexual exploitation and a drugs and alcohol-fuelled fever pitch entertainment world.
Casey Nicholaw’s smooth staging creates a slick show, cleverly crafted for in front and behind the scenes episodes, nifty choreography redolent of the era, and a real crowd pleaser.
Wales Millennium Centre until April 30
Image credit – Matt Crockett