The signature moment in the new Dreamgirls happens deep in Act 2, after the cover version of "One Night Only" by Deena Jones & the Dreamettes overtakes the original Effie White version on the pop charts, putting an abrupt halt to Effie's comeback hopes. Finally seeing her manager/husband for what he truly is — a lecherous, manipulative, law-breaking promotional genius — Deena breaks with Curtis Taylor and reconciles with Effie. White was the Dreamettes' lead singer until, a decade or so earlier, Curtis polished the vocal trio's sound, replacing Effie with Deena as the group lead and paving their way to superstardom.
A huge power ballad, "Listen," celebrates the reconciliation. Co-written by Beyoncé Knowles for the 2006 film version, where she dueled with Jennifer Hudson, the duet gives the current touring revival an Act 2 showstopper that compares with "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" as the curtain falls on Act 1. It also capsulizes what's so great — and so terrible — about this production.
Portraying the wised-up, penitent Deena, Syesha Mercado basically wiped the floor with Moya Angela's not-really-chastened, not-really-forgiving Effie in their "Listen" showdown. That's because Mercado invested as much in Beyoncé's lyric as she poured into the Henry Krieger music, igniting Deena's declaration of independence with authentic fire and touching our hearts. Angela, by contrast, was a volcano of unintelligible self-absorption, spewing forth vowels at screamingly high volume to a sold-out Belk Theater in a performance worthy of a lowly also-ran on American Idol.
Likewise, Angela's "I Am Telling You," when Effie is booted from the group, was a torturous inundation of vowels, screams, and high notes followed by high notes. The audience went wild for this sound and fury — even without supertitles! — and it has to be admitted that Angela's anger and anguish were more appropriate for the occasion. Tempting as it is to blame American Idol for such artless effusions of vocal triple lutzes, loops, and salchows, the truth is that Mercado is the cast member with the Idol pedigree, finishing second runner-up in Season 7. She is wonderfully paired with Chaz Lamar Shepherd, whose looks are the second coming of Carl Weathers, and whose voice as Curtis has that stop-you-in-your-tracks mellowness so necessary to make their "You Are My Dream" duet work.
Fleshing out the Dreamgirls scenario, loosely based on the careers of Diana Ross & The Supremes, is James "Thunder" Early. Early is the stepping-stone Curtis uses to catapult the Dreamettes to stardom, souping up Early's R&B act by using the Dreamettes as his backup singers and enlisting the composing skills of Effie's brother, C.C. White. By romantically stringing the third member of the trio along, Lorrell Robinson, Early helps writer-lyricist Tom Eyen ensure that all three Dreamettes are equally exploited by black slicksters.
Adrienne Warren as Lorrell and Trevon Davis as C.C. are both excellent, but if you weren't in the audience last week for Dreamgirls, the most spectacular performance you missed was surely Chester Gregory's as Jimmy Early. Krieger's 28-song playlist for the original 1981 premiere mostly pales against the riches available for today's jukebox bio-musicals, but Early's spots are particularly zesty. The various idioms encourage choreographer Robert Longbottom to resurrect the choicest moves of Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson and James Brown, and Gregory simulated all these groovy icons with panache.
Rock Hill costume legend William Ivey Long lavished his Tony Award-winning talents on a splendiferous new Dreamettes' wardrobe. For true Diana Ross aficionados, Long combined finesse and subtlety in the silky white costumes for the Dreamettes' farewell song, "Hard to Say Goodbye." With the iconic Billie Holiday gardenias in their hair, the outfits unmistakably evoked Ross's Oscar-nominated screen role in Lady Sings the Blues.