Michael Bennett, the Buffalo-born choreographer who left his creative stamp on some of the most important musicals in Broadway history, was never afraid to try new things.
He was always stripping away props and scenery (as in his 1975 hit "A Chorus Line"), attempting daring innovations with choreography (as in his original staging for Stephen Sondheim's "Company") and moving the art of musical theater forward.
But with the hyperactive, underwhelming revival of Bennett's 1981 hit musical "Dreamgirls," which opened Tuesday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, musical theater took a couple of big steps back.
In planning a musical for 2010, it's probably safe to assume that the late Mr. Bennett would not have used a series of cut-rate JumboTron screens playing embarrassingly crude animations in place of backdrops. Or that he would have allowed the emotional depth of Henry Krieger's music and Tom Eyen's book and lyrics to be so thoroughly ignored (with few exceptions) as it was by this cast. But there it was, Bennett's 1981 hit -- not a perfect musical by any stretch, but still deeply moving and full of memorable music -- reduced on the Shea's stage to a manic and largely vapid impression of the original.
The show, at least in theory, should take audiences on a tour through the life of a fictional singing group known as the Dreams, whose lead diva, Effie (Moya Angela), runs up against all manner of problems with Diva-in-training Deena (played on opening night by Syesha Mercado, to be replaced by Felicia Boswell) and conniving manager Curtis Taylor (Grasan Kingsberry) as the show progresses.
This "Dreamgirls" is just the latest in a series of recent revivals ("Grease") and new shows ("Dirty Dancing") that seem to want desperately to be television shows or films. You have to wonder, given the absurd lengths the directors of these shows go to include technological elements that remind audiences of TV screens, why they don't simply abandon Broadway for Hollywood and spare those expecting actual theater the trouble of sitting through their productions.
One of the central flaws of the production, directed with a wildly overactive pace and consequent emotional shallowness by Robert Longbottom, is the addition of five massive towers containing LCD screens. If you've seen the early '90s computer screen saver known as "Flying Toasters," then you have an idea of what those backdrops look like.
These sorts of visual gimmicks show an egregious lack of respect for the actors, whose singing, dancing and -- when present -- acting should be the natural focus of our attention. When the screens are not in use, it's marginally easier to focus on the plot at hand.
Fortunately, a couple of stellar performances save this production from what would otherwise have been a complete bust. As the unhinged but affable soul singer Jimmy Early, Chester Gregory practically steals the show with his hilarious, beautifully sung and sometimes overtly sexualized performances.
And I say "practically" because of Moya Angela's rendition of Effie, one of the only other cast members who seems to be actually feeling the emotional journey of her character throughout the show. Her performance of the song most everyone knows and loves, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is as heart-wrenching and vocally shattering as it deserves to be.
Unfortunately, in this production, it serves not only as Effie's anthem, but as a smart piece of advice for potential ticket-buyers.
> Theater Review
Review: 2 stars (Out of 4)
Musical presented through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. For information: 847-1410, www.sheas.org.