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Tainted Love

Musical theatre doesn't get much better than Dreamgirls.

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Long before the groundbreaking R&B musical Dreamgirls took its bows on the Great White Way, there was an actual band called the Dreams. It's such a great name, how could there not have been? Chances are you've never heard their music, though. Not unless you're a record collector from Philadelphia or perhaps an audiophile with a thing for obscure harmony groups from the early days of rock-and-roll. The Dreams' records are never played on golden oldies radio or reissued by K-tel.

In 1954, the same year Elvis recorded "That's All Right" for Sun, the real Dreams — who, apart from tight harmonies, were nothing like the Dreams of Dreamgirls — signed with Savoy Records, a pioneering New Jersey label that specialized in black gospel, jazz, and R&B. Shortly after, they visited New York, where they met the celebrated Charlie Mingus and recorded some of the dreamiest sounds to emerge from the musically rich city that spawned Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

I mention all of this as prelude to my review of Dreamgirls at the Hattiloo Theatre, because it's impossible to listen to these great lost singles and believe that there has ever been anything remotely fair about the recording industry. Rave reviews never translated into a position on the national charts, and so the magnificent original Dreams faded after their last recording session in 1955.

Dreamgirls, by way of contrast, is an incredible success story loosely modeled after the biography of Motown hitmakers Diana Ross and the Supremes. But the story is no less typical than the one I just told. Success for this version of the Dreams only comes as the direct result of a massive betrayal and only with the help of bribes paid to radio execs and disc jockeys. And while the reconfigured Dreams rise to the top of the pops, Effie, the group's original lead singer (heavy of both voice and body), and Jimmy Early, an R&B pioneer who helped the girls get their start in the business, tumble off the charts and into the dustbin of history. It's bedrock American myth, powerfully told.

Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's musical is heavy with drama, although dialogue-driven scenes are few and far between. It unfolds like a dream (for lack of a better description), moving with minimal choreography from New York's Apollo Theater to Las Vegas and beyond with the speed of thought and almost nothing in the way of a set change. In director Dennis Whitehead's solid, simple, and occasionally spectacular staging, the transitions are helped along with the aid of nice but unnecessary photo projections. As with the Greeks and Shakespeare, everything you need to know is built into the story.

Few moments in the theater are as powerful as the one where Effie (subtly played and perfectly sung by Nia Glenn Lopez) turns on her duplicitous manager and lover, Curtis (a smooth, calculating Marcus Anthony), and launches into the paint-peeling and heart-shredding song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

Of course, Effie does go and is replaced as both the Dreams' lead singer and Curtis' lover by the leaner and more telegenic Deena (an effective Noelia Warnett-Jones), who sings with a lighter, more crossover-friendly voice that doesn't readily reflect its black gospel roots. And once the change is made, the hits don't stop.

Even for a musical with minimal technical requirements, the Hattiloo production is especially lean. The competent two-piece band barely hints at what the sound could be, and the cast is a mixed bag of acting talent. But, for all of its ragged edges, there's something special about this spunky, no-nonsense take on some familiar material.

The Hattiloo is a place where the action often spills off the tiny stage and into the audience. In this case, it doesn't spill so much as it explodes. Choreographer Emma Crystal puts so many dancers onstage it doesn't seem like there's room to move, but they do move and it's electric.

By the time Mario Williams bounced from the stage into the aisle for the show-stopping "Jimmy Got Soul," the entire audience had surrendered to the irresistible groove and become his full-voiced backup singers.

This history of popular music is a sleazy affair. The fact that it's so unfair and fraught with double dealing is part of what makes collecting records — and the stories that go along with them — so much fun. Dreamgirls isn't just about the Supremes. It's a fantastic amalgamation of all of those stories, from the most inspirational to the most depressing. And even when it's stripped down to the bare bones, it's just about as good as musical theater gets.

Through June 17th

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