Dreamgirls is one of the great successes of both Broadway and Hollywood, and it's no surprise that Stumptown Stages would want to capitalize on that success by staging their own production. But Dreamgirls is a big show that calls for big voices, and it needs a production team that can handle all that bigness and make some sense of it. Director Kirk Mouser has cast some amazing talent, but it seems like the entire rehearsal period focused only on the vocals—every other element of the show falls far short of the mark.
The play follows the rise of the R&B/pop group the Dreams, and it's not a smooth ride. Their manager wants to "lighten" up the group's look and sound so they will appeal more to white audiences. He kicks the lead singer—his lover, Effie (Julianne Johnson-Weiss)—to the curb, trading her big voice and big body for the softer, prettier back-up singer Deena (Joann Coleman). After this change, the group's success skyrockets and Deena is propelled to stardom. By the play's end, everyone involved has paid a steep price for success.
Mouser has made some excellent casting choices, notably Johnson-Weiss as Effie and Eugene Blackmon as Jimmy Early. But that's where the production team's strengths end. Janet Mouser's set design is horrendous: Candy-pink steps edged in tinfoil flashing engulf a pit band that's placed smack in the center of the stage, crowding the actors onto the very front edge. Between the terrible design and Mouser's poor use of it, huge amounts of space are wasted while the cast trips over itself on the awkward steps. What passes for choreography is ridiculous at best, immense sound-tech issues make even the best voices hard to listen to, and the theater is far too intimate to ignore the handful of players who don't know their lines or blocking and fumble aimlessly around the stage.
At nearly $30 a head, Stumptown needs to work a little harder to give its audiences what they're paying for. But if what you want is to hear some amazing voices sing some fantastic songs, then lean back, close your eyes, and settle in.