Friday, July 27, 2007

Dreamgirl: Jennifer Holliday

Her song: Original Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday will sing And I Am Telling You from Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's rooftop  and on stage in Atlanta.
By Amy Sussman, Getty Images
Her song: Original Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday will sing And I Am Telling You from Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's rooftop — and on stage in Atlanta.

To celebrate Dar's birthday, we went to the Fabulous Fox to see Jennifer Holliday recreate Effie in an astounding performance of Dreamgirls. It made the film look like a glee club exercise by comparison. Here's what the AJC had to say:

‘Dreamgirls’ will give you goosebumps

THEATER REVIEW “Dreamgirls” Grade: A Through July 29. Theater of the Stars, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Midtown. 404-817-8700; The verdict: A powerhouse performance by Holliday.

You’re going to love her.

In a triumphant return, Jennifer Holliday is back at the Fox Theatre in the bouffant wigs and flowing chiffon of “Dreamgirls” — playing Effie White — the put upon, cheated on, self-sacrificing leader of a Motown girl group.

Winner of a Tony Award for her dynamic performance in Michael Bennett’s 1981 musical, Holliday has maintained an inseparable, highly public and — by her own admission — not always healthy relationship with the notoriously prickly, supremely talented Effie.

While many an actress would have simply gotten too tired or too old for the role, the 46-year-old diva has clung to the fictional character as if she were her own personal property, making no bones about her dissatisfaction with the movie that won an Academy Award for “new Effie” Jennifer Hudson earlier this year.

But to see Holliday reclaim her ownership of this emotional juggernaut in this first-rate new Theatre of the Stars production is to understand why she and Effie share the same blood and the same mind.

To hear her belt and bulldoze her way through her signature anthem, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” is a theatrical experience of the highest order. This is one for the history books, folks, a moment that stops time like Ethel Merman doing “Rose’s Turn” or Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

This is not to say that Effie’s meltdown is the sole virtue of director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s production, which opened Friday night as part of the National Black Arts Festival. Nor that everything about the three-hour show is as spiffy as a new Cadillac car.

Some of the performances take a while to pay off, while others — like Eugene Fleming’s scorching take on egomaniacal lady’s man James Thunder Early — strike gold immediately. Fleming’s voice can sizzle and scratch like James Brown’s, then dip, comically, to the lowest end of the bass register (“Steppin’ to the Bad Side”). The actor is also an agile comedian; check out the way his James has to struggle to suppress his bawdy mannerisms when the Dreamettes make their Miami debut.

So what about the other Dreamgirls?

Well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more glamorous Deena than former EnVogue member Cindy Herron-Braggs, or a more likeable and entertaining Lorrell than Brandi Chavonne Massey. (Deena is the one who replaces Effie, both as the Dreamettes’ lead singer and manager Curtis’ love interest; Lorrell is the woman who finds herself increasingly uncomfortable as James’ mistress.)

In Act II’s Vogue magazine shoot, Herron-Braggs strikes a slinky, white-gloved pose worthy of Diana Ross — dressed to the nines in designer Theoni V. Aldredge’s ‘70s silhouettes and sophisticated hats. (Robin Wagner’s sets, by the way, are clean and inobstrusive facsimiles of the originals, and when they are reduced to simple curtains of fabric, Ken Billington’s lighting turns them into pure luminescent magic.)

As for the men in Effie’s life, brother C.C. (Destan Owens) has a soft, creamy voice and a presence that becomes more affecting as the night moves on. But David Jennings’ take on Curtis is stiff and unwieldy, even though the actor (last seen inAtlanta in the Alliance Theatre’s “Sister Act”) has an impeccable sound (“When I First Saw You”).

Some will say that Holliday looks gawky and uncomfortable at times. Her posture is poor, yes, but she’s creating a new Effie who takes time to find her voice and her place in the politics of the group. By the time Effie re-emerges with her new song, “One Night Only,” she’s become a stylized cabaret chanteuse who enunciates every syllable with authority. Here’s a woman who refuses to remain in the background, or be shunted aside by the competition.

In a world that too often judges by physical appearance and rewards sexual attractiveness over raw talent, Effie remains an enduring symbol of survival. Productions of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s modern classic will come and go, but Jennifer Holliday will remain the definitive Effie.

Sing On


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