Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘Dreamgirls’ stuns with decadent sets and vocal performances

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The most striking thing about performances at the Berkeley Playhouse is the consistently terrific sets. As the lights went up on the theater’s newest production of “Dreamgirls,” the audience was transported directly to the Apollo Theater at the height of the 1960s Motown craze.

The musical “Dreamgirls” follows three backup vocalists on their journey from the Dreamettes to the Dreams to Deena Jones & the Dreams over a decade. The musical’s song catalog touches on soul, R&B, disco and even rap in an effort to map the ups and downs of these three Black artists trying to make it in the entertainment business.

Some of the actors in the show were absolutely exceptional. One rare phenomenon of local musical theater is listening to a performance where the local actor does better renditions of the song than the Broadway cast recording. This is the least that could be said about the phenomenal performance by Marcel Saunders. Saunders was electric as James “Thunder” Early, the early music act that gave the Dreams their start. Saunders’ vocals felt absolutely effortless as he charmed the audience more and more with every hip thrust and vocal riff. Saunders dominated the stage whenever he was on it and offered a captivating performance of a complicated character.

On the other hand, the song “Steppin’ To The Bad Side” and other songs featuring big group numbers, while vocally strong, struggled with their choreography, giving them an awkward feel. The first act found most success in numbers such as “Cadillac Car” or “Dreamgirls,” which mimicked classic Motown hits, featuring the Dreams doing the tight, repetitive choreography common in trio performances of the era. But while the choreography did find more success in these smaller, digestible numbers, the Dreams struggled to present an entirely uniform appearance, often moving out of sync or at different tempos. One of the keystones of trios at the time was their identicality. They all looked alike and they definitely all danced alike. The uncertainty of some of the movements in this production gave the numbers an unpolished feel.

Luckily, the vocals were enough to distract from most choreographic missteps. Saunders, Kris Anthony Williams as C.C. White and Marissa Rudd as Deena Jones offered terrific vocal performances along with numerous other featured actors.

These top-notch vocal performances were essential for a show like “Dreamgirls,” which is more of a Motown opera than a straightforward musical — most dialogue that wasn’t sung was still underscored with a piano and trumpet. Throughout the entire first act, the Dreams were constantly on the stage, singing and dancing their hearts out. While this opening offered a fun and fast-paced adventure through show business, mimicking the meteoric rise of the Dreams, the second act was slower-paced and offered more space for characters to develop, both personally and vocally.  

A perfect example of this change is Tanika Baptiste, who played Effie White, the emotional center of the show. Baptiste was able to better fall into her character during the second act of the show. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the iconic powerhouse moment of the show, fell flat at the end of the first act for this reason. In that moment. Effie switches immediately from a screaming fight to the most vocally demanding song of the entire show, which is by no means an easy feat. The slower pacing of the second act allowed her voice the opportunity to be truly showcased in songs such as “I Am Changing” and “One Night Only,” which did not follow an absolutely harrowing fight full of anger and betrayal. While undoubtedly one of the most powerful female vocalists on the stage, this power, at least initially, did not translate to ease and evenness in her vocal performance.

Despite choreography missteps or flat notes, when the curtain closed on “Dreamgirls,” the audience members shot to their feet, clapping along with the actors to the fantastic music that the show was all about.

Kate Tinney covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.