Flashy dreams

McCarter Theatre Center presents Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s Dreamgirls

2 minute read
The Dreams pose with white-gloved arms up, against a luxe gold curtain, wearing silvery formal dresses and white feather boas
A top-notch cast: Keirsten Hodgens, Ta-Tynisa Wilson, and Shantel Cribbs in McCarter’s ‘Dreamgirls.’ (Photo by Diane Sobolewski.)

A fully realized production of the crowd-pleasing musical Dreamgirls is hard to pull off. You need a cast of triple threats, enough wigs and costumes to span more than a decade of Motown razzle-dazzle, and an artistic vision to guide the audience through the show’s muddled and surface-level book. At a new production from McCarter, two out of three isn’t bad.

Set against the backdrop of the changing music landscape of the 1960s and 1970s, Dreamgirls tells the story of a fictional singing group that rises to the top of the charts. Along the way, the Dreamettes (later the Dreams) shed their powerhouse plus-sized vocalist Effie (Trejah Bostic) to center Deenah (Ta-Tynisa Wilson), the more petite and palatable singer.

My first encounter with the musical was in the 2006 stage-to-screen adaptation. That movie made a star of Jennifer Hudson, just as the original Broadway production did for Jennifer Holliday (not to mention Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine).

As Effie, Bostic burns the house down not only in “And I Am Telling You,” but also in the more understated “I Am Changing.” As I watched this production, it occurred to me why Effie is such a stand-out character: she is really the only one supported with a meaningfully developed arc. This is a shame, as Wilson does her best to add shades to Tom Eyen’s thin book.

As the third Dream, Lorell, Keirsten Hodgens shines with comedic timing and strong vocals. She is well-matched by the James Brown stand-in, James “Thunder” Early (Saint Aubyn). Aubyn reliably delivers in his high-energy numbers.

Director Lili-Anne Brown’s production also looks mostly great. Samantha C. Jones’s costumes feel appropriate and dynamic. Earon Chew Nealey clearly worked overtime to create dazzling hair looks for all of the characters. The flashy set by Arnel Sancianco is exciting at first but increasingly grows tedious. While the original Broadway production was known for the choreography of its set pieces, this static set allows for little in the way of movement or variety. The action is consistently thrust downstage and becomes very linear on account of the pedestal upstage.

While Dreamgirls has themes with real heft: betrayal, friendship, sexism, corruption, racism, cultural appropriation, and respectability politics, the show never sticks the landing on any of them. Brown has rounded up a top-notch cast and assembled them into a high-caliber production of a challenging musical. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t reach beyond the limitations of its own writing.

What, When, Where

Dreamgirls. Music by Henry Krieger, book and lyrics by Tom Eyen; directed by Lili-Anne Brown. $25-$120. Through March 24, 2024, at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. (609) 258-2787 or mccarter.org.


McCarter is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be an ASL-interpreted performance of Dreamgirls on Saturday, March 16, at 2pm, and an audio-described and open-caption performance on Sunday, March 17, at 2pm. To select the best seats for access, contact patron services by calling the box office.

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