Really, I don't understand why the average American doesn't like opera. It delivers primordial emotions, sung repeatedly in waves of ever-increasing feeling, and it makes an irresistibly powerful effect even if you don't understand all the words. That was true of the national tour of "Dreamgirls" on Tuesday night at Belk Theater, and the audience rightfully roared its approval.
The show has become iconic since its 1981 Broadway premiere for groups who have been "denied their power," as a psychologist might say: women, African-Americans, gay people or anyone who's been treated as second-class citizens. (That might include fat people, as the actress taking the final bow is always hefty.)
On the surface, the play is about image. The wily manager of a singing group romances the stout lead singer to get the girls under contract. Then he dumps her personally and professionally, putting the pretty one out front and in his bed.
But underneath, it's about control. It's about the ways any of us - even with the kind of good intentions that pave the way to hell - decide what's best for others, because we're wiser or hipper or more experienced.
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The play has no out-and-out villains. Manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) seems the most hissable, because he treats people as tools or puppets. But when he sings "You Are My Dream" to Deena (Syesha Mercado), the woman he's made the internationally famous lead singer of the trio, he means it: He really has devoted his life to her, though he crushed her spirit and stifled her own dreams along the way.
His tragedy, like the tragedy of soul singer James "Thunder" Early (Chester Gregory), is that he can't grow. The triumph of slim Deena and stout Effie (Moya Angela) and even little Lorrell (Adrienne Warren), third member of the trio, is that they can - though they have to shed their men to do it.
The touring show departs from the 1981 version in two significant ways. It includes "Listen," the duet of reconciliation for Deena and Effie written for the 2006 film. (That was one of the instances Tuesday where words were lost in an outpouring of sadness and love, not that I minded.) And the back of the stage consists of five towering LED panels that can be used to project images or swivel around to shunt us from "onstage" to "backstage."
Robert Longbottom's direction depends on split-second execution and tireless zeal, which the resourceful chorus and the rocking band provide.
Emotional effects come in broad strokes, yet the principals find occasions for subtlety. Watch Shepherd's hands; while he keeps his demonically handsome face calm, his twiddling thumbs and restless fingers betray his true feelings.
Mercado, a second runner-up on "American Idol," is not a singer learning to act but an actor who happens to sing, and she makes Deena's rapid transformation credible. Gregory is outrageous, funny, delusional and pathetic by turns, and both Warren and Margaret Hoffman (as Effie's replacement in the Dreams) have charisma. So does Trevon Davis as Effie's songwriting brother, but the script gives him no help.
Angela is a force of nature. Her showstopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" blows us back in our seats, creating a six-minute symphony of pain. Few moments in musical theater match this number, and you needn't be marginalized or disenfranchised to understand what she has to say.