Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
When Theatre in the X announced that Dreamgirls would be its summer production in Malcolm X Park, I was intrigued. For almost a decade, Theatre in the X has been centering Black artistic voices while intentionally serving a Black audience in West Philadelphia at no cost to attendees (donations accepted!). While the company admittedly exists on a tight budget, it has produced a wide array of work, from George C. Wolf’s The Colored Museum to The Wiz to, most recently, Richard II this spring.
Dreamgirls is a different beast entirely. It is a splashy, decades-spanning musical that cuts cinematically between locations and characters. The vocal demands on the entire cast are intense, with the central role of Effie requiring almost legendary singing abilities. For those who have not encountered the work on stage or on film, Dreamgirls tells the story of the Dreams (a fictionalized version of the Supremes) as they become global superstars.
Meeting the Theatre in the X mission
Theatre in the X delivers Dreamgirls and then some. Music director Will Brock has rearranged many of the classic songs in the show, breaking through the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s to give us a survey of Black music over the last six decades. Paired with the innovative choreography of Sanchel Brown, this arrangement expands the scope of Dreamgirls from a rags-to-riches showbiz story to a celebration of the versatility and veracity of Black artists.
Director Ozzie Jones’s re-imagining of Dreamgirls feels central to the mission of Theatre in the X: giving Black artists the space to tell Black stories to Black audiences. While the original (and subsequent) cast of Dreamgirls was largely Black, the original creative team (director, choreographer, composer, and librettist) were all white men. Ditto the 2006 movie adapted and directed by Bill Condon. These musical interventions seem to push the Dreams in an entirely revelatory context.
A monumental performance
The Dreams are all excellent. Kayla Byrd is a hoot as Lorrell and is able to show the depth of her character as she grows out of a relationship that has run its course. Taylor J Mitchell’s Deena is poised without being sterile; we totally understand why she becomes a pop diva. As Effie, Candace Benson delivers a monumental performance. Her “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was thunderous and raw. Joseph Xavier-Mack hams it up as James Early (he especially shone when he brought a young audience member onstage to dance with him). The remainder of the cast is committed and looks like they are having the times of their lives. The inspired costumes by Tiffany Bacon are sumptuous and varied.
As I sat in my camping chair (the production is BYOC) in Malcolm X Park, I couldn’t help but think how perfectly Philadelphia the whole experience was. More than any other theatrical work I have seen here, this production felt deeply invested in reflecting the community it served. In turn, the audience was fully immersed in the outdoor production, which naturally came with a host of unavoidable distractions. On Thursday’s performance, the microphones proved to be challenging, but the performers powered through and the audience extended grace as the production team worked to iron out the kinks. “We’re poor!” a co-artistic director shouted to the audience, “but we’re rich because we got all of you here.”
What, When, Where
Dreamgirls. Book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, music by Henry Krieger; directed by Ozzie Jones. Through August 21, 2022, in Malcolm X Park, 5100 Pine Street, Philadelphia. Production is free and open to the public. In lieu of ticket purchases, the company encourages audience members who are able to donate to do so via the Theatre in the X website.
This is a free outdoor event in the park; audiences are encouraged to bring their own chairs.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.