Dreamgirls is essential musical theater, and the touring show that opened Tuesday at the Straz Center gets the job done if you're not too picky. The staging has a flashy, cinematic look — thanks, in large part, to the scenic design of Robin Wagner — and the score by Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) is a slice of rhythm and blues heaven.
There is also a knockout performance by Moya Angela as Effie, the heavy-set, temperamental diva who is first replaced as lead singer of the Dreams, an African-American trio from Chicago, and ultimately let go as the group crosses over to the white pop music market of the 1960s and '70s. Angela gives a tumultuous, wrenching rendition of Effie's Act 1 curtain song, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, the number that made Jennifer Holliday a star in the original 1981 Dreamgirls, as well as helped Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar for the 2006 movie.
Syesha Mercado, the American Idol alum from Sarasota, is top-billed as Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-like member of the Dreams, but she didn't make much impression in her homecoming performance. Effie, the more substantial role, overshadows Deena, and Mercado's singing, while pleasant enough, lacks dramatic heft. When Effie and Deena have their Act 2 confrontation in Listen (written for the movie and added to the stage musical for the tour), Angela is the clear winner, despite her unflattering Afro and boots, compared with Mercado, who looks like a socialite in stylish blouse and slacks.
Angela's Effie is the strongest singer in the cast, and once she is gone, the Dreams' performance becomes pretty tepid. Adrienne Warren, who plays Lorrell, the third Dream, is at her best as a peppy dancer. Effie's replacement, the gorgeous Michelle, is played by Margaret Hoffman.
Though Krieger and Eyen have long denied it, Dreamgirls is clearly modeled on the story of the Supremes. It's fun to match characters in the musical to their real-life counterparts, such as the Dreams' manipulative manager, Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), to Motown boss Berry Gordy, and James "Thunder'' Early (Chester Gregory), as a James Brown type who gives the Dreams their break when he hires them as backup singers.
Wagner designed the original Dreamgirls, and his set for this tour features five large, grid-like panels that shift around in dozens of combinations to create interesting playing areas amid a black void. It provides a great canvas for Ken Billington's vivid lighting and the amazing costumes by William Ivey Long, who turns the musical into a time line of pop fashion, dressing the Dreams in everything from filmy lavender mumus to mod Carnaby Street outfits. And the collection of tacky wigs is endless.
Robert Longbottom directed and choreographed the revival, and he added more dance, as well as lots of video, to the legendary original production of Michael Bennett, but it all seemed a bit frayed around the edges Tuesday. The quick cuts from scene to scene weren't always sharp, and some big numbers, such as It's All Over, when Curtis kicks Effie out of the Dreams, were ragged. Alvin Hough Jr. conducted the rocking orchestra.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.