In Dreams: The Muny pins its hopes on Jennifer Holliday in ambitious Dreamgirls

In Dreams: The Muny pins its hopes on Jennifer Holliday in ambitious <i>Dreamgirls</i>
Larry Pry/The Muny
Jennifer Holliday brought home Tony and Grammy awards for her role in Dreamgirls.

How I wish I could back into this review by talking about all the terrific things the Muny has done with its long-overdue debut staging of Dreamgirls — beginning with the boldness of finally including this mega-hit on the summer schedule. Dreamgirls is not your typical Muny fare, and perhaps for sane reasons. As originally staged by director-choreographer Michael Bennett in 1981, this account of a 1960s singing trio (surely inspired by the Supremes) was conceived as a take-no-prisoners exercise in relentless energy. So in terms of presentation alone, it's fascinating to see how the antiquated Muny stage can stand up to the myriad challenges of a story that is told through an onslaught of whiplash scene changes, unending costume changes and thundering momentum.

But that's not what people want to hear about. They want to know about Jennifer Holliday, who became a star when she created the heartbreaking role of Effie White, the lead singer in the Dreams trio who is first humiliated and then abandoned when the group strives to cross over from rhythm & blues to mainstream pop. The Muny has built up Holliday's return to her Tony Award-winning role as the centerpiece of the 2012 season. The ploy must be working, because the opening-night performance was packed, and a tingling sense of anticipation filled the air. At the end of Act One, the audience rewarded Holliday's bravura aria, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," with rapturous enthusiasm. As the lights came up on intermission, a woman in the row in front of me turned to her companion and exclaimed, "That was the most remarkable thing I've ever heard."

So it is with cautious trepidation that I offer a minority view — a view that is difficult to articulate, because I still haven't figured out what I saw on the Muny stage Monday night. But I'm fairly clear about what I didn't see: heart, soul, empathy. Instead I saw a performer who accepts star billing but whose body language suggests that she does not want to be on the Muny stage, an actress who seems uncomfortable touching or even looking at the other cast members. In a lifetime of Muny-going, I've seen miscast performers; I've seen actors who didn't know their lines. But never before have I seen an actor treat a show with condescension.

Dreamgirls
Larry Pry/The Muny
Dreamgirls

Location Info

Map

The Muny

Forest Park
St. Louis, MO 63112

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: St. Louis - Forest Park

Details

Dreamgirls
Through July 22 at the Muny in Forest Park.
In addition to the free seats, tickets are $10 to $70.
Call 314-361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.

Even 30 years after she created the role, Holliday remains ideally cast, and memorization is the least of her problems. But early in Act One, especially, it was as if she was sleepwalking through the choreography. And when she sang her two arias — the aforementioned "I'm Not Going" in Act One and "I Am Changing" in Act Two — although the audience was delirious with glee, I could not understand much of what was being sung. The words were lost in a labyrinthine howl that was all about effect to the exclusion of honest emotion. This is not how Holliday sings on the Dreamgirls original cast CD. Through the years she apparently has forgotten the most essential lesson of all art: Less is more.

The rest of the show is a noble effort. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. (Those six light turrets, an idea borrowed from the original Broadway staging, slow the production and eventually become more of a distraction than an asset.) But even if Dreamgirls does at times appear to be too much show for the Muny stage, I'm still glad they were willing to take on this Everest of a mega-musical; that's what artists should be doing. But here's the rub: A Hamlet without a Hamlet can lead to a long evening. As the moody Prince of Denmark remarks midway through Act One, "The time is out of joint." Something is sadly out of joint in Forest Park this week. A lack of harmony has resulted in a glitzy yet emotionally bankrupt evening of theater.

 
My Voice Nation Help
11 comments
anonimous
anonimous

I agree. I was baffled by the reception for her and while I can't argue if she was a good performer in the past, I had no idea what she was saying during her songs. I couldn't tell if I am just horrible at judging talent or if I was brave enough to call a dud a dud. I thought the rest of the cast was great (Jimmy DID have soul!!!) and enjoyed the show overall but found Jennifer to be a drag in an otherwise good production.

spotter77
spotter77

This was a brave review. Look, I love the Muny, I love Dreamgirls, and I love Jennifer Holliday. It sounds like the show tightened up considerably from Monday to Saturday, which is when I saw it--though I should admit that I saw it from Section C sans binoculars. Her body language made sense in many of her scenes, and I couldn't tell if it was from condescension, from a battle with her MS, or an acting choice. I also don't know how much rehearsal time she had, so that might have had something to do with it.

 

Still and all, I really hope the Muny keeps tackling shows like this. So many of their shows seem overly safe and sanitized to me, and this one felt raw and electric. No, not everything worked. I think everybody was wondering if it made sense to cast a 51 year old in a role meant for someone thirty years younger, even if she was the one who created it. Still, I'd rather see more shows like this one any day than another technically perfect, near-soulless Disney adaptation.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

The MUNY has never had to 'pin' its hopes on any one performer or musician, or producer, or conductor. The MUNY is the greatest outdoor theater in America, itself-worth the experience. The problem is the Fox is crushing it, closing it a record early August 12, so it can open Lion King and try to draw all the people who might have gone to MUNY. I would book all of September with concerts.

average 8,500 over cool comfortable nights and blow the Fox away. The Fox needs its 'ears pinned back rigidly' for killing Kiel Opera House  2 decades, getting the 'boys' to turn it into a banquet center, and sending the Michael-Weasel into the Park to kill MUNY.

survivor101
survivor101

i saw the show Tuesday - I also saw it twice on Broadway in it's original format. It was an overwhelming theatrical experience all three times and it will be remembered forever. The fact that Ms. Holliday suffers from multiple sclerosis only makes this performance even more heart wrenching.

sheila.s
sheila.s

Having seen Jennifer Holiday in concert, her mannerisms are no different when she is performing as herself.  While she may not be the most graceful performer, I believe her awkwardness is not only suiting to her role but also charming.

Georgina
Georgina

Have been a Muny attendee for over 40 years. Dreamgirls was the best show I have ever seen at the Muny and believe me their have been many many great shows. LOVED IT and ALL the voices were incredable. Thank you for such a great experience. Will never forget it.

Rita
Rita

The Muny never seems to let me down. I'm glad they brought this production here. Every year the Muny brings something bold and daring. I agree that the opening night could have been better, the dancers were off a bit on the choreography and Ms. Holliday seemed a bit lost but please understand that she has suffered from an illness and still trying to build up her strength. I give her cudos for the effort. The rest of the cast are great singers and performers; especially the man who played Jimmy. Overall this production of Dreamgirls was a breath of fresh air. To Mr. Ken Page: you are my idol. I love every role you play in, my favorite is CATS. Keep up the good work. Everyone that I spoke who were of different races enjoyed the show. To the artistic director: KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, AND KEEP BRINGING NEW PRODUCTIONS TO THE MUNY.

STLTheatreGuru
STLTheatreGuru

You two are f-ing morons. Did you actually SEE a performance ? She was brilliant and the show was amazing. Get a life. And a taste level...............

Juliemckitrick
Juliemckitrick

I completely agree with the review. Ms. Holiday's voice is like nothing I've heard before, truly unique. But, I also got the sense that outside of the two featured songs, she seemed to be putting in minimal effort. At times it felt awkward and unbelievable. I've read other reviews that gave a glowing report of Holliday's performance...I was starting to wonder if we saw the same show.

TheatreLover
TheatreLover

Agreed - I'm considering seeing it again as this will be her final performance in this role.

 
Loading...