'Dreamgirls' West End Review: Is Amber Riley's Effie a Match for Jennifer Holliday?

Dreamgirls
Amber Riley stars in a West End production of "Dreamgirls" at the Savoy Theatre. Greg Williams

Musical theater roles, by nature, are borrowed, not owned; a performer might put their flourishes on a part, they might even win an award, but there is a tacit understanding that the character will eventually be passed on to the next performer to make their own. Dreamgirls’ Effie White, originated by Jennifer Holliday on Broadway in 1981, and revitalized for the big screen by Jennifer Hudson in 2006, is the exception to this rule. The Jennifers have both left such an indelible mark on Effie that Amber Riley’s most earnest effort in a new London production of the musical struggles in comparison.

Dreamgirls, which opened at the Savoy Theatre Wednesday, has taken 35 years to travel to British shores. Its launch ties nicely with the 10th anniversary of Bill Condon’s movie adaptation that earned Hudson her Oscar and gave Beyoncé’s acting career an injection of credibility. This production comes from Sonia Friedman Productions, hoping to emulate the box office success of its current West End show, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and is directed by musical veteran Casey Nicholaw (also director of Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre and co-director of The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre).

The musical charts young Chicago singing trio, the Dreams, who rise through the music industry from backing singers to music superstars. Tensions simmer within the group when Effie, the strongest vocalist of the three, is replaced as lead singer by the model-esque Deena Jones. The lineup change is made more insulting because it's mandated by the band's manager, and Effie's lover, Curtis Taylor Jr., who also has eyes for Deena.

On paper, Glee star Riley is the perfect Effie. Her character on the popular TV series, Mercedes Jones, sometimes felt Effie-esque as she battled Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry for the spotlight, once even declaring: “I’m Beyonce, I ain’t no Kelly Rowland.” Riley has star presence onstage—she inhabits the character with all the swagger of a U.S. superstar and her acting and singing abilities are not in question.

But as the first act comes to a close with that behemoth of musical numbers, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the feeling of euphoria that the Jennifers elicit is lacking in Riley’s performance. Riley seems overpowered by the ballad—scared of it—and it shows: her high notes are never as elongated as Holliday’s or Hudson’s. The song comes at a key point in the story where Effie feels desperate, broken and betrayed, yet these emotions are more tangible in Hudson’s screen performance than Riley’s intimate stage attempt. Riley’s best vocal performance comes on “I Am Changing” in the second act—she performs this self-affirmation ballad with conviction and her voice reverberates through the cosy 1,000-seat Savoy, though it could easily achieve the same in a 20,000 capacity arena without any extra effort.

Supporting Riley’s performance is Liisi LaFontaine as Deena, the role played by Beyoncé in Condon’s film. LaFontaine isn’t as enigmatic as the pop superstar, but comes into her own when she duets with Riley in the second act. The parts reinterpreted the best are Lorrell Robinson, the sometimes-dizzy final member of the Dreams who is played by Ibinabo Jack, and Jimmy Early, the James Brown-like singer played by Adam. J. Bernard. Both Jack and Bernard portray their characters’ comic tendencies effectively—Bernard particularly shines in the second act when Jimmy has a solo number.

The songs in Dreamgirls have aged considerably but, like the glittering ballgowns worn by the Dreams, never lose their sparkle. 35 years later, the music by lyricist Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger continues to inspire toe-tapping, especially the two renditions of “One Night Only”—one a ballad, one a disco remix—in the second act. The addition of “Listen,” the song recorded and performed by Beyoncé specifically for the 2006 film, is the only number that feels like a misstep. The lyrics have been almost entirely changed (with input from Krieger) to serve a particular plot resolution near the denouement and, set to the familiar melody of Beyoncé’s song, it feels like a cake missing half its ingredients.

The Savoy stage is small but the production is still more minimal than expected. Here, the producers have opted to dispense with lavish set-pieces and focus on wowing with the Dreams’ fabulous costumes instead. Dreamgirls just about gets away with its bare-bones feel because the costumes really are head-turning.

Dreamgirls is like a well-worn vinyl: imperfect with a few scratches, but still an experience to value.

Dreamgirls is booking now at the Savoy Theatre, Strand, London, WC2R 0ET. For tickets visit www.dreamgirlswestend.com