Ever since Dreamgirls debuted on Broadway in 1981, Effie's howl of an aria, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," has always been a blistering keen. You expect the actress playing Effie to plant her feet center stage and seize the moment. In the current Black Rep staging by Ron Himes, the volcanic Willena Vaughn begins her eruption as expected. But by the end of the number, as she's belting "You're gonna love me, you're gonna love me, you're gonna..." rather like a vinyl 45 whose needle is stuck in a groove, Vaughn does something jarring. She sits down to sing. And, rather like an overweight bully who plops onto one end of a see-saw, sending the person on the other end spiraling into the sky, it's when Effie sits that the audience spontaneously stands.
Standing ovations at the end of a show have become a too-common occurrence. But a standing O midway into the evening remains a rarity. The last one I can recall was in 2003 when Michel Bell bravura'd his way through "Ol' Man River" in Show Boat at the Muny. Bell brought the vast audience to its feet at every single performance; it's a safe bet that Vaughn will be accomplishing that same feat nightly into July.
It's perhaps an overstatement to suggest that Vaughn is the whole enchilada here there are, after all, another 21 performers onstage but she's the main reason to see Dreamgirls. It's not just that she performs with power; she performs with variety. At times her sound is so throaty, it's as if she's singing through a lint filter. Then without warning the clarion call rings true, and watch out. She could blow the toupee off a bald man in the fifth row.
Vaughn brings fierce individuality into a story about homogenization. But at some point, and especially during those scenes when Effie is offstage, you might find yourself asking, "What is this show about?" Then you might recall that what the original Dreamgirls was really about was director-choreographer Michael Bennett craving a hit. He had followed his mega-smash A Chorus Line with Ballroom. Bennett had mucked up that endearing story about lonely people by transforming it into a "concept" musical. Ballroom died a premature death; now Bennett was desperate for another smash. So he developed Dreamgirls. The libretto is anorexic, but no one noticed because the show was overloaded with razzle dazzle: staging that never stopped, light towers that turned and spun.
This Black Rep production has lots of razzle, and not just Vaughn. As the group's sound-searching manager, J. Samuel Davis is his usual terrific self (St. Louis is lucky to have him onstage so often), and Jahi Kearse has fun spoofing James Brown without allowing lampoon to sink into travesty. But there's not much dazzle here. Colors are muted and somber; so is much of the lighting. Dreamgirls has the look of the last show in a long season whose production budget ran out too soon. Nor is there much dazzle in the uninventive staging, which does little to mask the thinness of the story. The final musical number is jarringly anticlimactic; even the curtain call is conventional rather than soaring. What you're likely to remember most here is the piercing memory of Willena Vaughn's musical breakdown as she urges, commands, begs, "You're gonna love me" and the realization that you do.