Taking A Closer Look At "Dreamgirls"

by | March 1, 2006 | Comments

You’ve heard about Monday’s exclusive media presentation, but how will Bill Condon‘s "Dreamgirls" measure up not only as a film musical, but as a wide-reaching box-office endeavor?

Filmmaker presentations and schmoozing aside, the studio-sponsored "Dreamgirls" event was much more than an early publicity push with free food and drinks; it prompted a moment of speculation about Broadway adaptations, popular casting, and the production itself. "Dreamgirls" is in its seventh week of production, and Monday’s live performance of "Steppin’ To the Bad Side" proved at least that Condon can put on a dazzling show with flashy stage lights. The intricate stage movements of stars Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy‘s stand-in, and about a dozen other professional dancers also show that weeks of training can make musical (and movie) magic. Then again, this was only one of many song-and-dance numbers in "Dreamgirls," and thus hardly any indication of how the end product will be received.

In terms of the cast, you almost have to ask, can "Dreamgirls" measure up to the award-winning "Chicago?" Condon’s largely credited with turning the highly successful stage musical into a watchable, laudable film script — but then again, "Chicago" had the benefit of two Oscar-caliber actresses (Catherine Zeta-Jones and a surprising Renee Zellweger), a leading man (Richard Gere), and a legendary source musical by Bob Fosse. "Dreamgirls" has Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, who can believably hoof it and has a burgeoning singing career; Eddie Murphy (in what his fans hope to be a comeback role) as the dynamic James Brown-type pop singer James "Thunder" Early; and a supporting cast that includes Danny Glover and Tony winner Hinton Battle.

The real test will be within the main trio, The Dreamettes. Sure, Beyonce’s cut her cinematic teeth on projects like the recent "The Pink Panther" and "Austin Powers in Goldmember" — but neither role was dramatic or, arguably, demanding. Yet as Deena, the pretty member of the group, Beyonce seems to have it locked down; after all, this is the woman who fronted Destiny’s Child, the Supremes of the last decade.

Also proven is Anika Noni Rose, who plays Dreamette Lorrell. Rose is an award-winning stage actress who’s got a Tony under her belt, which automatically qualifies her singing and acting abilities.

That leaves newcomer Jennifer Hudson, whose character Effie is the main, pivotal character of "Dreamgirls." As everyone knows, Hudson’s big voice got her to the finals of "American Idol" two years ago; casting rumors had her pitted against "Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino for the role of Effie White. Yet Hudson’s got no prior acting experience — although she does carry herself with maturity in the media — and that may be the biggest challenge "Dreamgirls" has to face. Can the unknown, unproven Hudson carry film musical as ambitious as this? We know she can sing, but the character of Effie has to do much more — serving as the emotional center of the story, Effie is the original lead singer of the Dreamettes, who is slowly pushed into the background (and eventually out of the group) by the group’s manager (Foxx) and replaced by the prettier Deena (Knowles) as the group gains celebrity by selling out.

Another question is the music. With songs written in the 1980s, but set in the 1960s, many of the songs have a Motown-tinged vibe but still retain that ’80s sound, as evidenced in the now-standard, early Whitney Houston-sounding "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going." Original composer Henry Krieger is on hand, with new songs, no less, but Condon’s employed the producing team of The Underdogs to contemporize the soundtrack. Can Krieger’s soundtrack hold up after revisions, additions, and a work-over by the producers of Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake?

Also, Condon’s made the smart decision to add dialogue to his film version, since the original stage musical is sung through entirely. Will this be enough of an adaptation to convince film audiences, where previous attempts at making a musical less "stagy" (like adding dialogue to "Rent") failed? Condon’s "Chicago" succeeded as a film musical in part because most musical numbers were Roxie Hart’s fantasies, thus explaining the phenomenon of spontaneous song and dance to a non-musical audience. It doesn’t appear to be so in "Dreamgirls," where as a "backstage" musical the story has the benefit of explaining away some musical scenes; still, some numbers (like the clip of "Steppin’ To the Bad Side" previewed at the "Dreamgirls" presentation) will take place in the "real world" of the film.

The studios have initiated a marketing campaign already that includes paying the licensing fees for community and high school theater groups to put on productions of "Dreamgirls" in the coming year with the hope that it will introduce the "Dreamgirls" story and music to new, younger audiences. Those same audiences and young, MTV-watching demographics are the targets of star power provided by casting Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx, and those teenagers’ parents may be enticed by the appearances of older gen-stars Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover.

Likewise, Broadway fans have been clamoring for a film version of "Dreamgirls" for years, and they’ll no doubt arrive in droves to see this latest, high-profile musical; after all, die-hard show fans went to see the critical dud "Rent." Casting Anika Noni Rose and stage legend Hinton Battle can’t hurt, either, and adds some very important stage credibility to a cast of mostly film thesps.

The filmmakers also have the distinct advantage of attracting the "American Idol" audience — which, in its fifth season, shows no sign of ever going off the air — with fan favorite Jennifer Hudson. The power ballad number "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Leaving," with its showy flair and melodrama, is a signature song that the "Idol" audience will surely be suckers for. To hear it yourself, view the "Dreamgirls" teaser trailer, here, which is no more than title graphics and the power tune, yet has hooked excited fans already.

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