"Dreamgirls" At Derby Dinner Playhouse

By Paul Moffett

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late February, several slightly out-of-breath members of the cast gathered around a table to talk about the upcoming production of "Dreamgirls," a musical loosely based on the story of the Supremes and the rise of Motown records.

Gayle King, the Louisville chanteuse who plays the role of Deena Jones, commented that "It's like a history lesson, really." The lesson is about the struggle of black performers to succeed in a white-dominated business. It's also a lesson about success, period.

King, who has been performing for nineteen years, both as a solo act and with the bands Indigo and the Pendulum Orchestra, is in her fifth production at the Playhouse. She said that she likes to do about two plays a year, because they "keep you sharp." The rest of the cast agreed.

Gregory Vincent Puckett as James 'Thunder' Early

The cast also were in agreement on the fact that there is not enough work for black performers anywhere in the country. In that context, "Dreamgirls" is a great blessing because it puts many black performers on stage.

Gregory Vincent Puckett. who handles the role of James "Thunder" Early, commented that he would rather the question of color not be considered in the casting of performers.

"I'd rather be told that I was good-looking, period, not good-looking for a black man. There are lots of parts that black actors could do. I could see a black Peter Pan, for instance."

A large number of the cast are Louisvillians, either natives or currently living in the area. Deborah and Joyce Belt, who play the Stepp Sisters, have been living and singing in the Louisville area all their lives. They have spent many years working as The Pearls. Lisa Renee Banks, a Youth Performing Arts graduate, is also a native Louisvillian, as is La Toye Montgomery. Kirk Davis, Beverly J. Gant, Ralph Myers, Dathan Nahsohon Hooper, and choreographer Michael Mullins all claim connection to the area.

The brief interview ended on the comment that "Dreamgirls" was demanding in large part because of the number of costume changes. Every scene seemed to require a different outfit. At that, the group dispersed to get ready for the next rehearsal.

True to the comments of the cast, the show was full of costume changes - lots of changes - and the story was historical - if Days of Our Motown Lives could be considered 'historical.' Ah, well, musicals hardly have to meet the standards of historians and this one certainly didn't have to - it was much too entertaining for history.

The plot is thin and without surprises. A trio of black female singers, the Dreamettes, connects up with hustler car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr., played to a greasy fare-thee-well by Richard Waits, and begins the climb to the top. Black, soulful but chubby lead singer Effie, played by Roberta Thomas, is bumped by Taylor for the gorgeous (and lighter) Deena Jones, portrayed by Gayle King. The trio climbs to the top of the charts encountering the usual problems with crooked club managers, payola and devious manipulation by Taylor, who steadily wrings the soul out of their music in favor of pop chart (read "white") success.

In the end, the abandoned Effie returns to chart-topping success and Taylor is brought down by his own vileness and dishonesty. Deena Jones gives up her life as his wife and meal ticket for a career in films.

A James Brown-like character, James "Thunder" Early, is played beautifully by Gregory Vincent Puckett. Of course, it's hard to overplay James Brown, but Puckett catches his style perfectly, although he's really much too handsome to be Brown.

Overall, the cast handles the constant costume changes smoothly, and the dancing and singing are first rate. Of particular note is the singing of Robert Brown as Effie. Her (literally) show-stopping solo at the end of the first act was the real high point of this production. The audience interrupted her repeatedly with applause, whistles and hoots and at the end of the tune, the heartfelt "(And I'm Telling You) I'm Not Going," she had the audience on its feet. Arguably, that solo might be worth the entire price of the show. Taken together, the show is most assuredly worth the admission.

The musical runs through April 14. Tickets can be ordered by calling the Derby Dinner Playhouse at (812) 288-8281.