By JOAN TADDIE
Dreams are made and sometimes broken in theaters everywhere when a curtain is raised. Opening night at the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse was no exception. Executive director and producer, Anastacia Hawkins-Smith, held her breath as she welcomed the exuberant audience waiting for the show to begin.
For 26 years, she had dreamed of producing the musical “Dreamgirls” at the Cocoa Village Playhouse, and she was confident that she had finally found the talent required to make her dream a reality.
“Dreamgirls” first opened on Broadway in 1981 with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger. It was directed by Michael Bennett and closed in 1985 after 1,521 performances. The production received 13 Tony nominations and won six. It was later adapted for film in 2006.
The story revolves around the business of making stars out of young musical dreamers and the price each must pay. It is not so subtly based on the rise of Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown record company and R&B acts such as The Supremes. It brings attention to the illegal practice of payola and the packaging of what will become iconic singers of the 20th century.The musical opens with non-stop singing and dancing as The Dreamettes — Effie, Deena and Lorrell — compete in the amateur night talent contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York in 1962. Although the three friends lose the talent show, they meet Curtis Taylor Jr., a car salesman, who becomes their manager. Curtis quickly makes a deal with R&B star James “Thunder” Early and his manager, Marty, to use The Dreamettes as his backup singers.
This begins a musical and emotional journey through the 60’s and 70’s as we witness the paths these characters take to follow their dreams of riches and fame. A talented, dynamic cast tells this story on the Cocoa Village Playhouse stage.
Shatirah Rolle embraces the character of Effie White. Her extraordinary and powerful voice stands out from the first time we hear her singing “Move! You’re Steppin’ on my Heart” with The Dreamettes at the beginning of Act 1. As the full-bodied, full-voiced, temperamental member of the girl group, Ms. Rolle shows the audience right away that she has the acting chops to match her amazing voice.Effie falls for Curtis and soon realizes he is leaving her for her friend and replacement, Deena Jones. Fraught with emotion, she sings “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” the song that made Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson stars. Ms. Rolle grabs the audience and never lets go, singing every note with physicality and a raw emotion and still finding the power to wail and growl, “You’re gonna love me!”
On opening night the audience applause began before she even finished the song, and at the end of the song, Ms. Rolle received a standing ovation.
Ms. Rolle shows her vocal versatility in Act 2 when she sings the beautiful and sensitive “I Am Changing.” From the beginning of this number, Ms. Rolle takes over the stage and gently and effortlessly hits every high note with a soft vocal caress.
An interesting side note regarding Shatirah Rolle is written in her bio in the show program: “She (Ms. Rolle) has faced the challenge of performing at the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY, and walked away with a standing ovation and first place prize.”
Felander Stevenson as James “Thunder” Early kills it. Mr. Stevenson never just enters the stage, he explodes on the stage. He picks up the pace at just the right time with his electrifying smile, his non-stop hilarious comedic energy and his flamboyant appearance. Nobody can look as cool and comfortable in Jimmy’s outfits and hair as Mr. Stevenson. And can this man sing and dance. Mr. Stevenson holds the audience in the palm of his hand during every number, starting with “Fake Your Way To The Top.” He is the consummate entertainer.LeRoy Darby appearing as Marty Madison is the perfect foil for the high energy Jimmy. He
counters Mr. Stevenson’s flamboyance and ego with a strong and controlling presence. Mr.
Darby shows the soft side of his character when Marty convinces C.C. to reconcile and reunite with his sister Effie. Mr. Darby’s strong vocals add to the musicality of the ensemble.
Gaelle Andre, who plays the role of Lorrell Robinson, charms the audience with her beautiful vocals and her elegance as she sings and dances behind Effie and then Deena in The Dreamettes and also in The Dreams. Ms. Andre joins Mr. Stevenson in Act 2 in a very impassioned scene that leads to the singing of “Ain’t No Party,” an audience favorite.
Patrick Marshall appears as song writer C.C. White and brings empathy and kindness to this harsh world of entertainment. Mr. Marshall has a beautiful, melodic voice and sings the lead in the number “Family” with a gentleness and sensitivity that touches hearts. When the ensemble joins Mr. Marshall with their beautiful harmonies, it is a special moment. Later, in Act 2, Mr. Marshall appears in a touching love scene with Taylor Martin who plays Michelle Morris, the replacement for Effie in The Dreams.
Johnathan Shepherd wears many hats in this production, including being cast in a major role. He also shines as the co-director, choreographer, and scenic designer. As Curtis Taylor, the manager of The Dreams, Mr. Shepherd plays his character as a cold and ambitious businessman. His vocals are polished and controlled. The moment in the production that allows Curtis to show a glimmer of love comes in Act 2 when he sings the romantic “You Are My Dream” with Deena Jones, played by Sarah Huff.
“Dreamgirls” tells its story by taking the audience on a quick tour of the musical culture that became Motown. This culture included continuous transformations in musical styles as well as in performance fashion. So “Dreamgirls” must deliver glamour. That includes big, creative hairstyles and long, beautiful, colorful gowns that sparkle with lame’, jewels, and sequins. Dan Hill’s glamorous costume designs are remarkable. But Mr. Hill’s genius allows the actors to get in and out of each costume in a matter of seconds, assisted by the dressers in the wings.
Tracy Wines had the enormous task to create the many wigs necessary to match the 60’s in Act 1 and the 70’s in Act 2.
Scenic designer Johnathan Shepherd’s simple set allows for the many quick scene changes. It
consists of large rectangular frames constructed on two levels with occasional panels flown in that move up and down during the scene. Lighting designer, Ian Cook uses lighting to isolate areas within the frames. This allows multiple scenes to exist on the stage at the same time.
Next week is the last chance to see this exciting production. And I am telling you, you’re gonna love it!
“Dreamgirls” runs through Sunday. Tickets are $16 to $24. CVP is at 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Call 321-636-5050, visit CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com or click onto their ad.