Stage Review: Hattiloo’s ‘Dreamgirls’ has big heart, sizzling sound

Breyannah Tillman as Lorelle (from left), Noelia Warnette-Jones as Deena, and Nia Glenn Lopez as Effie in 'Dreamgirls' at Hattiloo Theatre.

Courtesy Hattiloo Theatre

Breyannah Tillman as Lorelle (from left), Noelia Warnette-Jones as Deena, and Nia Glenn Lopez as Effie in "Dreamgirls" at Hattiloo Theatre.

The musical "Dreamgirls" -- with all its bubbly songs and pressure-cooker personality conflicts -- is like a bottle of Champagne after a winning playoff game. It's not for sipping from a glass. It wants to be shaken up so that the cork flies across the room. It wants to celebrate a dream fulfilled.

A whole lotta shakin' kicks off the show when a female singing trio from Chicago arrive at Harlem's Apollo Theatre to take part in a talent contest. The competition is fierce. Backstage, agents and managers are making deals and putting the wheels of their career in motion.

This is not a typical star-is-born story. It's a story of three women fighting for their individual dreams in what James Brown aptly described as "a man's world."

It's hard to imagine that this seemingly epic story -- set in the simmering crucible of soul, pop and R&B music of the 1960s -- could be anything but constrained at the Hattiloo Theatre, where it is now closing out the season.

Hattiloo's stage is about the size of an average living room. The live music at Sunday's matinee consisted of a keyboard player and a drummer, which is as bare bones as a pop musical can possibly get. Most of the singers don't need -- or use -- microphones to be heard in the intimate space. When a dance number overcrowds the stage, the singers run up the aisle like models on a catwalk.

If you're looking for similarities to, say, the 2006 film version of "Dreamgirls" that plays out like a long-form music video, or the Broadway tour that had the lighting and sound effects of a Beyonce concert, you might be disappointed.

But this production of "Dreamgirls," offers something just as wonderful and uniquely satisfying for audiences. You can see a still-young and hungry theater company rising to the challenge by focusing on the guts of the story. For all the great tunes in "Dreamgirls," the script does a terrific job fleshing out the characters' personal strengths as well as their flaws. The actors capture the inner turmoils of artists who, despite having so much talent and passion, have to work through the influences of vanity and greed.

Director Dennis Whitehead makes the best of his minimal instrumental and technical palette by attending to the dramatic meat of the story, while Emma Crystal's tightly wound choreography gives the numbers an electric jolt.

Nicely cast as the three Dreams are Noelia Warnette-Jones as Deena, the telegenic lead singer of the group; Breyannah Tillman as Lorelle, the reliable back-seater of the group; and Nia Glenn Lopez as the soulful Effie, whose Aretha Franklin-esqe physique and vocal style puts her at odds with the cross-over sound that their manager wants from the group. Their three-part harmonies are often dazzling, and they are pretty sharp individually as well.

Marcus Anthony offers a gifted portrayal of Curtis, the manager who brings both success and conflict to the group. A.J. Bernard is the sensitive songwriter C.C., who just wants to make meaningful music. Mario Williams cuts up as Jimmy Early, a popular R&B singer in the wild style of James Brown.

Even in this small-scale production, "Dreamgirls" has big heart. As Hattiloo continues to grow (next season, construction begins on its new, larger venue in Overton Square), this musical shows that the company has, at this point, the right stuff -- namely, talent and desire -- to make its own big dreams come true.

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"Dreamgirls"

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through June 17 at Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall. Tickets are $22-$25. Call (901) 525-0009.

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