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Voices of experience
The Civic’s production of Dreamgirls a long-time dream for many
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In musical theater, the term “show stopper” often refers to a particular song that’s so powerful it has the potential to… well, stop the show. The storyline is put on hold while the audiences recognizes the performance, and then the actors on stage have the challenge of somehow jump-starting the narrative again and getting back to the story.
And the particular challenge of the musical Dreamgirls — which begins its run at the Fort Wayne Civic on Saturday, July 28 — is that there are a lot of show stoppers: “One Night Only,” “I Am Changing,” “Fake Your Way to the Top”… and of course, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” which might be the very definition of a show stopper (Cherelle McGee, who plays Effie White, gets to shine on that one for the Civic’s version).
So, Dreamgirls — the fictionalized story of Berry Gordy Jr., Motown Records, The Supremes and their lead singer Diana Ross — has a lot of great songs, and the temptation for a lot of productions, according to director Dianne Shaw, is to turn the show into a sort of “musical revue.” “I tell the actors, ‘this is not a concert piece, this is a play where much of the dialog is sung’,” she says. “We need to have scenes, and they need to grow. Yes, you all have beautiful voices, but in terms of what people come to see, it’s not a concert.”
Dwight Wilson, who plays manipulative manager Curtis Taylor, adds: There’s a lot of youth in this play, and the talent is incredible. Everyone here can sing the rocks off a cliff. But if you forget — and I can’t give Dianne enough credit — if you don’t make people believe your character, it might as well be a concert and not a play.”
It’s a testament to Shaw’s experience in Fort Wayne’s theater scene that the cast — comprised of many newcomers to the Civic stage — seems to get it. And if Shaw’s voice of authority isn’t enough, odds are the newbies have a Civic theater veteran like Wright standing next to them in rehearsals: the cast and crew of Dreamgirls boasts one of the more striking mixes of experience and new talent that I’ve seen in a while.
There are probably two reasons for that. The first: for someone who sings soul, gospel, or R&B, Dreamgirls is… well, a dream gig. “We had an amazing turn out of talent,” Shaw says of the auditions of Dreamgirls. “But I was looking for people who had some sort of experience; not necessarily theatrical, but maybe in a choir, anything where you understand the discipline and commitment of it. The commitment was really important to me because we are working five days a week in order to get this up on its feet.”
That commitment was something that Jache Sharnise, who makes her Civic debut playing Deena (the “Diana Ross character”) was a little surprised at. A recent graduate of Wayne, Sharnise had been in several musicals before (she played Dorothy in a production of The Wiz at the Old Fort Y) and is attending a performing arts school in the Fall. She knew rehearsals would be long, frequent, and difficult, but that she didn’t really know what that meant until she was in the middle of it. “You don’t really know until you do it,” she says. “I thought I could just go in, learn the music… But as I started learning more, and more things started coming at me, I thought ‘okay, yeah, this is really a commitment. You really need to get your head into this, because it’s not just something you can do from 7 – 10 everyday’.”
And the second reason Dreamgirls boasts such a mix of experience: for many veterans of the region’s stages, a production of Dreamgirls at the Fort Wayne Civic has been something they’ve hoped to see for years. For Dwight Wilson and Kontrell Tyler, it’s a real labor of love.
Tyler, who plays James “Thunder” Early, a James Brown/Jackie Wilson type, produced a partial version of Dreamgirls at IPFW back in 2008. Civic audiences last saw him as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat before he moved to Atlanta. He returned to Fort Wayne specifically for Dreamgirls and a chance at the role he’s always wanted to play. “I love to sing, and this is one of those roles where you can really sing and be a little crazy,” he says. “The Civic has really been my school when it comes to theater training, because I really never went off to college to do theater.”
Another veteran sharing the Dreamgirls stage is Jason S. Gray. These days, Gray lives in Los Angeles, where he’s a professional film actor with 33 films, his own production company, and his own professional casting company to his credit. Playing Early’s former manager Marty gives him the opportunity to play someone… well, relatively normal; he says he’s usually cast as a thug or a bad guy (“I’ve probably played six terrorists in my career so far,” he laughs).
Gray is reconnecting with family in Fort Wayne over the summer, and says he wanted to “give back” to the place that gave him his start. “I love the Civic for the simple fact that I did my first show there about 20 years ago — The Grapes of Wrath,” Gray says. “11 or 12 years ago, I did a Neil Simon play called Proposals. I won the Anthony Award for that play, and winning the award basically gave me the courage, passion, and determination to move to LA to try to do this full time.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Dreamgirls
Saturday, July 28 at 8 pm
Sunday, July 29 at 2 pm
Friday, August 3 at 8 pm
Saturday, August 4 at 8 pm
Sunday, August 5 at 2 pm
Friday, August 10 at 8 pm
Saturday, August 11 at 8 pm
Sunday, August 12 at 2 pm
$18 Age 23 and under
$22 Sunday Senior Matinees
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: www.fwcivic.org