Perhaps no other musical has a first-act finale with the impact of the one in "Dreamgirls," the 1981 Tony Award-winning show biz parable by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen about a 1960s, female R&B trio's rise to pop superstardom and the artistic and personal compromises they make to get there.
It consists of the soaring "(And I Am Telling You) I'm Not Going," the signature anthem that earned a Tony Award for Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role of Effie -- the Dreamette ousted by her boyfriend/manager in an effort to better market the group to pop audiences -- and an Oscar for Jennifer Hudson, who played Effie in the 2006 film.
"Dreamgirls"★ ★ ★ ˝
Location: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847) 634-0200, marriotttheatre.com
Showtimes: 1 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 28
Running time: About two hours 25 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $41-$49; dinner theater packages available
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the theater
Rating: For teens and older
For anyone who knows the show -- not so loosely based on Diana Ross and The Supremes -- the opening notes alone induce goose bumps. That puts a lot of pressure on the actress charged with performing what is the show's emotional and musical pinnacle and who audiences expect will hit it out of the ballpark. Raena White, star of Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire's stylish, sophisticated and superbly sung revival, delivers. Swinging for the fences, the Detroit, Mich., native knocks the number clear onto Waveland Avenue with her powerhouse vocals coupled with the wrenching authenticity of her acting that reveals the desperate need to be loved that roils just below the hard-shell exterior of a complex woman.
While her performance in the second act needs a bit of nuance to more effectively convey adversity's transforming effect, which in this production is expressed in a rather impressive costume change, White's is an impressive performance. It's among several that members of this shrewdly cast ensemble deliver under director/choreographer Marc Robin.
The pliant, charismatic Eric LaJuan Summers -- who raises the room temperature every time he steps onto the stage -- nearly steals the show with his irrepressible performance as James "Thunder" Early, the womanizing R&B star (played by Summers as a cross between James Brown and Little Richard) who smothers his soul's musical fire in exchange for crossover success.
Britney Coleman brings airy elegance and credible naiveté to Deena (the Diana Ross role in this), the pretty innocent who happily sings backup to White's Effie, until manager Curtis (a slick, silken Byron Glenn Willis) decides her look and sound would be more palatable to the white audiences he wants to court.
Then there's Rashidra Scott's terrific performance as Lorrell, the trio's third and most often overlooked member. Not only does Scott have a terrific set of pipes, her transformation from naive young thing to self-assertive woman emerges as one of the production's most fully realized performances. She fills in the blank spaces left by Eyen, whose characters need fleshing out, including Effie, who has a chip on her shoulder that is never explained, and Deena, whose repeated promise to her mother to "be somebody" is really a contrived way of explaining the pop diva's desire to become a film star.
Rounding out the cast is Trinity P. Murdock's old-school manager Marty, another victim of Curtis' ambition; C.C. the songwriter, who watches his artistic vision erased as his tunes climb the charts, and Naperville native Darilyn Burtley, charming in her professional debut as Michelle, the singer who replaces the ousted Effie.
Playing out on a Thomas M. Ryan set that looks like a phonograph record, "Dreamgirls" unfolds in short, frequently sung-through scenes juxtaposing backstage machinations with glitzy, fluidly choreographed performances by the Dreamettes, bejeweled and beautifully costumed by designer Nancy Missimi in eye-catching satin and chiffon with delicious sequin and ostrich feather accents.
Essentially an examination of friendship and love, ambition and success, betrayal and reconciliation, the strength of the show rests with Krieger's terrifically engaging score which at certain moments -- the brilliantly tense confrontation that precedes White's showstopper comes to mind -- is nothing short of operatic. Robin makes clear his appreciation in the artfully staged "Cadillac Car," in which white singers co-opt black music American music, and its follow up "Steppin' to the Bad Side" in which Curtis and company learn exactly what it takes to succeed in showbiz.