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Photo Credit :: Dreamgirls
Arts & Entertainment
Dreamgirls (the Movie)
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
December 15, 2006 
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Boston, late autumn 1981—and the buzz of Back Bay is the out-of-town, pre-Broadway tryout of Michael Bennett’s new musical Dreamgirls. Something about a wildly talented singer and her show-stopping number at the end of Act One which brings down the house. So we secure two seats in the front mezzanine of the Shubert Theatre—and right from the start, from the opening cowbell, we’re spellbound. And when that much-ballyhooed number happens, when Jennifer Holliday breaks our hearts at the end of the first act, we’re stunned in our seats—but only momentarily, before we race downstairs to the pay phones: to call New York and lord it over our friends in the business.

Two months later, on the 20th of December 1981, and the soon-to-be brilliant Bill Condon is seated in the last row of the Imperial Theatre for the opening night of Dreamgirls on Broadway—and as he says, he’s nothing short of “galvanized.”

Flash forward twenty-five years, to the 15th of December 2006, where the sold-out crowd at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York for the now-totally-brilliant Bill Condon’s cinematic treatment of that galvanizing Broadway musical greets the familiar cowbell with a kind of cathartic cheer that’s been years in the making. At long last, Dreamgirls has made it to film.

Once upon a time, Michael Bennett’s masterwork was going to be a project for Whitney. But then came the pipe—and about half a dozen other divas, all of who came and went. Those of us in the Dreamgirls cult had to wait—and wait—for years to pass. One memorable summer there were t-shirts all over Fire Island and the Village with the ubiquitous Dreamgirls graphic of three pairs of shapely legs in stilettos (with microphones dangling like dildos)—replaced by three pairs of male legs in jeans and sneakers, and the word Dreamboys.

And another reason we had to wait is because Dreamgirls, the musical, was born the same year that the film’s stars were born. In other words, we had to wait for Beyoncé Knowles to grow up. And we had to wait to be galvanized again by a singer named Jennifer, only this time with the surname of Hudson, not Holliday.

Which is not to imply that Beyoncé is the lesser presence onscreen—and particularly once the second act of Condon’s film commences, whereupon Knowles becomes Deena, aka Diana Ross, no longer merely Diane, and now and forever after known as the formidable Miss Ross (who once famously said about the show based on her life, “My life is not a fucking musical.” That’s right, Miss Ross—not the way you’ve been living it…)

Thanks to brilliant art direction, as well as costumes and make-up that evoke the glamour of Bob Mackie and the Dionysian world of Studio 54, Knowles’s performance perfectly captures the manufactured beauty that connotes the early Seventies and its association with mindless hedonism. To watch this section of the film is to better understand the triumph of style over substance—and its preeminence in today’s visually obsessed world.

But it’s Ms. Hudson who provides heart and soul, and ballast, to Condon’s beautifully realized expansion of Dreamgirls. Looking like the young Aretha Franklin, Hudson sings with an almost-effortless ease. There’s a natural quality about her performances in the latter half of the film—no strain on her face, she’s singing without having to sell (an irony best appreciated by those addicted to the television show from which she was unceremoniously booted).

And there’s also Eddie Murphy, about whom so many in the Dreamgirls cult were afraid—of what he might do to the part originated by Tony Award-winning Cleavant Derricks, Jr. Not to fear—Murphy’s depiction of James Thunder Early is thoughtfully nuanced, without any of the Murphy bug-eyed persona. And Jamie Foxx does a mean Berry Gordy—er, Curtis Taylor. And similarly, there’s beautiful work done by Sharon Leal and Danny Glover and Hinton Battle—all names connected to the New York stage, as well as a cameo by the original Lorell, Ms. Loretta Devine, whose appearance onscreen received a well-deserved cheer from the adoring first-night Ziegfeld audience.

Best of all, as if fueled by the memory of Michael Bennett’s genius at understanding showmanship and style, pizzazz and substance, Condon’s film captures the thrill of live performance. With his previous work as screenwriter for Chicago, and writer/director for Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, Condon displayed a natural affinity for the beauty often present in atypical familial relationships—and particularly as evinced in subcultures such as academia and show business. Working with a cast performing at the peak of their abilities, Condon, in Dreamgirls, celebrates the concept of family—albeit a family far more fabulous, even when flawed, than those which fuel our fantasies.

At times, more visceral than too many offerings on the Great White Way, Dreamgirls is a testament to how show business propagates dreams, and vice versa—and all the drama inherent therein. No question about it, Michael Bennett would be on his feet—as are audiences at the Ziegfeld, and all around the country, proving once again that good things come to those who wait.