I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at www.emmajaneexplores.com for more.
All you have to do is dream
Dreamgirls is an iconic musical, which has enjoyed a revival off the back of the success of the Hollywood movie by the same name. Rockdale Musical Society presents the NSW amateur premiere of this show, and they should be commended for branching out and bringing variation to the amateur musical scene. As Director, Rod Herbert, mentions in his program notes, it's also a difficult show to tackle, especially for an Australian community theatre ensemble, given the shows casting requirements.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Dreamgirls is loosely based on Diana Ross' rise to fame with the Supremes. It follows the meteoric rise of the all-girl African American vocal group The Dreams, from their humble beginnings as backup singers to James 'Thunder' Early to their superstar status as Deena and the Dreams. The young trio are led by powerhouse vocalist Effie White (played by Kaleigh Wilkie-Smith), who is later pushed aside for the skinner, more marketable Deena Jones (played by Sasha-Lee Saunders). As the show rolls on in Act 2, it's clear that the heart of this story is in Effie's personal development once she has lost everything. Her struggle to get back on top and launch a solo career is the real emotional crux of the show.
The first act which focuses on the rise of the Dreams and the transition of the three singers from skittish girls to women, starts with strong performances from the trio of Kaleigh Wilkie-Smith, Sasha-Lee Saunders and Jade Montalvo.
The girls are significantly let down in Act One by the production sound quality, however, as the balance between the booming show band and the vocalists is a bit off and lyrics are at times inaudible. There's also a rather distracting clicking sound that lingers for most of Act One that sounded like an issue with one or more of the microphones. Given that this is opening night of a longer run, I am sure that this will be resolved as the run continues. The girls soldier on, however, and are not fazed by any technical difficulties that arise.
The use of a very large ensemble is also to the show's detriment at times, with the stage being flooded with bodies that take us away from the main story and in big show numbers the performance space appears overcrowded. It's a testament to Rockdale Musical Society's inclusive nature, however, a slightly smaller dance ensemble would have served the show better. That said, the big dance numbers had the audience audibly whooping and cheering, so it's very clear that they thoroughly enjoyed those moments.
Direction by Rod Herbert is cohesive, for the most part, and he manages to develop a beautiful relationship between the three Dreams. His skills really shine in Act 2 where he demonstrates his ability to strip the production back from the flashy, glitter-filled numbers and allows his cast to have grounding moments of real stillness. There are however some frustrating choices, such as an iconic moment at the start of the show where after realising that another group is wearing the same wigs as them, the girls decide to turn their wigs around. In this production, following the instruction to 'turn the wigs around', the girls visibly don't touch their wigs and instead remove their headscarves.
Musical Director Anthony Cutrupi has done a stellar job with his band, which sounds tight and punchy and his vocal direction is particularly impressive in the trio work he has done with the Dreams. Joseph Nalty's choreography for the girl group is also wonderful and authentically of the era, although as mentioned earlier the use of the very large ensemble does at times take away from allowing the choreography to really shine.
Kaleigh Wilke-Smith showcases an impressive voice in the show's most iconic moments. Her rendition of I Am Changing is the highlight of the show for me and the moments of stillness where she is able to stand and really connect with the songs are impeccable in the second act. Sasha-Lee Saunders demonstrates her star power as Deena Jones, where she sings her pop numbers with ease and dances up a storm. Jade Montalvo delivers an outstanding interpretation of Lorell Robinson, with the pint sized performer stealing the stage every single time she walks onto it. Her emotional break up with Jimmy in Act Two is genuinely moving and the strongest acting performance of the show.
The cast of Dreamgirls
Quinton Rich as Curtis Taylor Jr doesn't quite capture the greediness and controlling side of Curtis, however in Act One he certainly has the essence of a young up and comer down to an art. Claudio Acosta has some beautiful vocal moments as Jimmy Early with some equally impressive sequinned jackets to boot. Stefan Jamal as CC White really hits his straps when he's reunited with his sister Effie in Act Two and showcases some beautiful vulnerability in his performance.
All in all, Rockdale Musical Society's production of Dreamgirls is a fun night out. It's a long show that will tighten up as the run continues, but the performances of the three lead women are worth the trip to Rockdale Town Hall to see the show. Furthermore, a big kudos goes to Rockdale Musical Society for bringing a new show to the amateur theatre scene in NSW. It's certainly a challenging show and not easy to cast and get on stage, so the fact that they have delivered such an enjoyable production is a testament to this company's enthusiasm and passion for musical theatre.