It's been over three years since Dreamgirls was last seen in London, concluding its acclaimed and Olivier award winning West End run in 2019. This week, it's back for one week only as it stops over in Wimbledon as part of its first UK tour. As one of my favourite and most seen shows, there was no way I was not going to see it this week, but could it live up to the dizzying heights of that previous production?
First appearing on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls has been loved all over the world for over 40 years now, reaching new audiences with its 2006 movie adaptation starring Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, who earned herself a Oscar for her performance in it, though it took until 2016 for the show to move to the UK where it enjoyed an uninterrupted run of over two years in the West End. Telling the story of a female singing group called The Dreams and their rise to fame with all its twists and turns, it is loosely inspired by the stories of The Supremes and other acts, but is in itself an original story.
Effie White is as iconic a role as it gets - apart from the fact she gets to sing some of the greatest songs in musical theatre (including THAT song. We'll come on to that later), it takes a lot in terms of acting and singing ability. The role has previously been played by Jennifer Holliday, Lillias White, Amber Riley and Marisha Wallace so to say those are big shoes to fill would be an understatement. I can think of nobody more fitting to fill those shoes than Nicole Raquel Dennis, who experiences a full circle moment as she leads this production.
Having most recently been seen in Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress, Nicole Raquel Dennis was born to play Effie White, having covered the role in its original West End run and even sung a duet of THAT song (still not ready to talk about it) with Jennifer Hudson on ‘The Voice’ so for the role to finally be her own is a well-deserved casting choice that has thrilled so many who have followed her on her journey. If we thought Nicole was going to be good in the role, we really were not prepared for how outstanding she is. Full of charisma, she oozes star quality as she demands attention from the audience whenever she is on stage, even when she is in the background such as her scene-stealing moments in ‘Heavy’. Demonstrating an incredible singing voice, Nicole delivers an Effie for the ages in what is surely one of the best portrayals of the role in history.
Nicole’s fellow Dreams are just as brilliant in their roles, with Natalie Kassanga channeling a sweet Deena Jones who eventually comes into her own, bringing with it bundles of charm and her own brilliant vocals. Paige Peddie is a contender for the best Lorrell ever, taking a role that can sometimes get eclipsed by her fellow Dreams and running with it, showcasing some truly incredible vocals that often leaves you wondering why Curtis slept on her (or rather, didn’t) as the lead singer of the Dreams, with her rendition of ‘Ain’t No Party’ providing an unexpected highlight of the evening.
Dom Hartley-Harris is suitably menacing as Curtis Taylor Jr, the dominating manager and love interest for two of the Dreams while Shem Omari James does a fantastic job playing C.C White full of naivety and innocence. Perhaps the standout performance goes to Brandon Lee Sears who effortlessly portrays the boundless energy and complications of Jimmy Early, unbelievably going straight from a backflip into flawless vocals. Brandon is astonishing to watch, ensuring you are left smiling whenever he is on that stage and proving time and time again what an incredible performer he really is.
Let’s talk about the songbook. Dreamgirls boasts some absolute classics, that have potentially never sounded better than they do in this production. From the classic sounding girl group numbers The Dreams get to perform such as ‘Move’ and ‘Heavy’, Brandons versatile numbers as Jimmy and the ensemble numbers such as ‘Family’ and ‘It’s All Over’ that allow all of the cast to shine, this is a show full of a ridiculously high standard of numbers, made all the better for the relatively recent inclusion of ‘Listen’ as a heartfelt duet between Effie and Deena.
When you think of Dreamgirls, you immediately think of Effies big three numbers. Nicole Raquel Dennis is a phenomenal talent and sings the Hell out of ‘I Am Changing’ and ‘One Night Only’ but there is one number everybody is on the edge of their seat for, and that is ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’. And I am telling you… she does it in a way I have never experienced before. While she uses the opportunity to showcase her huge voice, there are other moments in the song where Nicole holds back, delivering a performance of that iconic number that can only be described as emotional, raw and pretty damn perfect. Her rendition of that song will give you tears and goosebumps and make you clap like you have never clapped before – a true masterclass performance.
Considering this is a touring show, the production value for Dreamgirls is so high, you would think it was on a West End stage. They may not have been able to replicate the eye-wateringly expensive set from the Savoy Theatre, but they do a great job bringing a luxurious setting on the road with a fabulous set design from Tim Hatley. The choreography from Casey Nicholaw (who also directs) remains as brilliant as it did in its previous run, making the numbers burst to life.
Dreamgirls has always been a great show. It was fantastic in the West End several years ago – in some ways this version is even better. I have never seen a cast give it their all like this cast do, with every single person on that stage delivering jaw-dropping performances repeatedly. The result is potentially the most urgent and emotional production of this show there has ever been. It feels impossible to improve on perfection, but with this latest version of Dreamgirls, that is exactly what they’ve done.
Dreamgirls is at New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 14th May. It continues its UK tour until February 2023. Full dates and tickets at https://www.dreamgirlsthemusical.co.uk/tour-dates/
Photos by Matt Crockett