How I wish I could back into this review by talking about all the terrific things the Muny has done with its long-overdue debut staging of Dreamgirls — beginning with the boldness of finally including this mega-hit on the summer schedule. Dreamgirls is not your typical Muny fare, and perhaps for sane reasons. As originally staged by director-choreographer Michael Bennett in 1981, this account of a 1960s singing trio (surely inspired by the Supremes) was conceived as a take-no-prisoners exercise in relentless energy. So in terms of presentation alone, it's fascinating to see how the antiquated Muny stage can stand up to the myriad challenges of a story that is told through an onslaught of whiplash scene changes, unending costume changes and thundering momentum.
But that's not what people want to hear about. They want to know about Jennifer Holliday, who became a star when she created the heartbreaking role of Effie White, the lead singer in the Dreams trio who is first humiliated and then abandoned when the group strives to cross over from rhythm & blues to mainstream pop. The Muny has built up Holliday's return to her Tony Award-winning role as the centerpiece of the 2012 season. The ploy must be working, because the opening-night performance was packed, and a tingling sense of anticipation filled the air. At the end of Act One, the audience rewarded Holliday's bravura aria, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," with rapturous enthusiasm. As the lights came up on intermission, a woman in the row in front of me turned to her companion and exclaimed, "That was the most remarkable thing I've ever heard."
So it is with cautious trepidation that I offer a minority view — a view that is difficult to articulate, because I still haven't figured out what I saw on the Muny stage Monday night. But I'm fairly clear about what I didn't see: heart, soul, empathy. Instead I saw a performer who accepts star billing but whose body language suggests that she does not want to be on the Muny stage, an actress who seems uncomfortable touching or even looking at the other cast members. In a lifetime of Muny-going, I've seen miscast performers; I've seen actors who didn't know their lines. But never before have I seen an actor treat a show with condescension.
Even 30 years after she created the role, Holliday remains ideally cast, and memorization is the least of her problems. But early in Act One, especially, it was as if she was sleepwalking through the choreography. And when she sang her two arias — the aforementioned "I'm Not Going" in Act One and "I Am Changing" in Act Two — although the audience was delirious with glee, I could not understand much of what was being sung. The words were lost in a labyrinthine howl that was all about effect to the exclusion of honest emotion. This is not how Holliday sings on the Dreamgirls original cast CD. Through the years she apparently has forgotten the most essential lesson of all art: Less is more.
The rest of the show is a noble effort. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. (Those six light turrets, an idea borrowed from the original Broadway staging, slow the production and eventually become more of a distraction than an asset.) But even if Dreamgirls does at times appear to be too much show for the Muny stage, I'm still glad they were willing to take on this Everest of a mega-musical; that's what artists should be doing. But here's the rub: A Hamlet without a Hamlet can lead to a long evening. As the moody Prince of Denmark remarks midway through Act One, "The time is out of joint." Something is sadly out of joint in Forest Park this week. A lack of harmony has resulted in a glitzy yet emotionally bankrupt evening of theater.