Review: ‘Dreamgirls’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Dreamgirls has followed the summer’s closet full of Dreamcoats into Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia. That’s a lot of dreams, providing plenty of rich musical memories for theater fans to cuddle up with all fall.

Crystal Freeman as Effie. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Thirty-six years after its smash Broadway debut in 1981, Dreamgirls still comes over you like a caffeine rush. That’s especially true at Toby’s, where the flashing lights, pulsing sounds and kicking limbs rise with the swirling energy of a split atom from the ground-zero center stage.

The late Michael Bennett’s ode to a Motown female trio is typically pegged as a veiled history of Diana Ross and the Supremes. But it is more accurately described as an impressionistic take on the clashes and greed unleashed in a 1970s American-style pop gold rush.

As far as I can tell, the Toby’s revival has returned to the original Tom Eyen book and its non-stop lineup of songs by Harry Krieger and Tom Eyen. New songs written for the 2006 movie version and various road show revisions have been scrapped.

Inherent in the story is the struggle of women in that era to assert themselves in an all-male power structure. The larger social evolution is expressed in the changing fashions and hairstyles. Any political didacticism is wisely submerged in what is essentially a standard backstage melodrama about the rigors and pitfalls of show business.

There’s nothing submerged about the talent on view in this production. The special guest collaboration of Director Kevin McAllister and Choreographer Shalyce Hemby results in a seamlessly smooth shuffling of scenes and a steady diet of drama and movement. There was a tendency on opening night to rush too quickly over some necessary character relationships, though the action managed to sort everything out in time.

No one is likely to quibble with the casting, however. This is one powerhouse of talents.

Ashley Johnson, Sequina DuBose and Denae Fiedler as Lorell, Deena and Michelle. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

No one who drops in at Toby’s to be entertained is likely to forget the raw, passionate commitment of Crystal Freeman to the role of Effie. Like Jennifer Hudson before her, Freeman puts a very personal emotional stamp on “I’m Not Going,” making it more explosively vulnerable and breaking it free from the lulling comforts of its melody.

Freeman is so human in the role that she rises above the character’s abrasive self-interest. In her indescribably sweet solo “I Am Changing,” the actress wins over anyone still doubting she will overcome her stalled career and engineer her own personal redemption. This is an award-winning performance in a showcase role.

Providing much more than backup as the other two original Dreams are Sequina DuBose as Deena and Ashley Johnson as Lorell. Both are terrific vocalists and believable star performers who make the most of every moment in the spotlight.

All but stealing the show in its eleventh hour is Bryan Jeffrey as the untapped spigot of soul, James “Thunder” Early. Jeffrey plays the backcourt wisely as a sort of preening R&B playboy until his moment in “I Never Meant You No Harm” when he goes for broke with “Rap.”

Bryan Jeffrey as James Early. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

That latter number has never been more expertly exploited, in this reviewer’s experience. It becomes the character’s breakout moment, a la “Mama’s Turn” in Gypsy, only here Jeffrey ends up literally sweeping the floor in his freestyle act of rebellion.

DeCarlo Raspberry makes Curtis something more than an ambitious music mogul with sensitive renditions of “Family” and “You Are My Dream.” Da’von Moody proves equally charismatic as C.C.

Strong support comes often in this show, notably in the form of Greg Watkins as the flashy MC, and by Toby’s newcomer Sylvern Groomes, Jr. as veteran blues man Tiny Joe Dixon. Then again, the entire swing chorus and vocal ensemble in this show delivers.

Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings again marshals the live pit musicians to full artistic expression. Sound Designer Mark Smedley had his job cut out for him in keeping all this rhythm and vocal energy in acoustical balance. He succeeds wonderfully.

Anyone out there who still believes Dreamgirls is little more than a glittery ’80s look back at the Supremes is just not in the loop. Time to grab a seat again and see how the pros at Toby’s go about showcasing the strengths of this modern musical classic.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Dreamgirls plays through November 12, 2017 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia — 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 730-8311, or purchase them online.

Fog, haze and strobe effects may be used in this production.


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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles under the Hollywood sign, John Harding is an award-winning arts writer and editor. From 1982 on, he covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and served as arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group until 2012. A past chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, he co-hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program. Also known for his novels as John W. Harding, his newest book is “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Movies,” published by Pulp Hero Press. It and an earlier novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games,'” grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore.


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