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‘Dreamgirls’ is enjoyable, but no showstopper

Choppy editing, directorial missteps mar this enjoyable musical. By John Hartl

It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since I first saw “Dreamgirls” on Broadway. The sold-out performance had only a few standing-room-only slots, and I didn’t regret buying a ticket. Standing was more like levitating. Those two and a half hours just shot by.

At the time, it seemed impossible that it would take more than two decades for this expertly staged show to become a movie. From the beginning, it seemed a natural. And hadn’t a similar 1976 film, “Sparkle” — which also told the story of an African-American singing trio that rose to fame in the 1960s — already paved the way?

In the early 1980s, the Boston Globe’s drama critic, Kevin Kelly, wrote that Michael Bennett’s original production of “Dreamgirls” accomplished “a staging concept with the rapidity, if not the fluidity, of the movies.” He cited the “quick transitions, shifting locations” and the sense that “the theater’s sparse and limited vocabulary suddenly finds itself in the wide open library of the cinema.”

In spite of such enthusiastic claims for cinematic potential, a decade zipped by without a “Dreamgirls” movie turning up in theaters. In the early 1990s, the AIDS drama, “Longtime Companion,” paid tribute to the show with a delightfully off-the-cuff sequence in which Stephen Caffrey danced to the title song and mouthed the words to the original cast recording.

Then, nothing — until writer-director Bill Condon finally put it all together, hiring a brand-new cast made up of marquee names (Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx) and one sensational newcomer (Jennifer Hudson) in a role that always seemed designed as a show-stealer. Perfectly cast, dynamically performed but choppily edited, the result is a fascinating hybrid: more than a photographed play yet somewhat less than a satisfying movie musical.

Condon’s screenplay is filled with opportunities for the actors, who can always be counted on to pounce on them. Foxx dares to make himself thoroughly unlikable as the chief villain, Curtis Taylor Jr., a seductive Detroit car salesman who becomes a talent manager for the Michigan-based trio, the Dreamettes. He poisons everything when he replaces the gifted but combative and slightly overweight lead singer, Effie White (Hudson), with the more svelte backup singer, Deena Jones (played by Beyoncé Knowles, who makes this passive-aggressive diva’s every move understandable).

Eddie Murphy is explosive as James “Thunder” Early, whose flamboyant, reckless performing style is matched by his off-stage indulgences with drugs and women. Keith Robinson smoothly convinces as Effie’s frustrated songwriter brother CC, and Anika Noni Rose makes a strong impression in the relatively unrewarding role of the trio’s other original member, Lorrell Robinson, who is forced to watch the Dreamettes being reshaped from a distance.

Whenever the characters start talking about the importance of family, you know they’re really admitting that this particular family of performers (and their exploiters) is on the verge of collapsing. The long-simmering tensions among unequal members propel the characters through a couple of decades, as the music business comes to terms with segregation, payola and, in one startling scene, the Detroit riots.

Condon’s commendably honest script never strays far from the essential ugliness of the story, filled as it is with betrayals, naked ambition and cowardly showbiz manipulation. Yet the picture is an up-and-down affair, glorious at times, inexplicably flat at others.

Partly this is because the songs, by composer Henry Krieger and the late lyricist Tom Eyen, haven’t aged as well as the music of the Supremes, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and others whose lives and performances inspired the storyline. The addition of four new Krieger songs doesn’t help.

Frankly, there’s nothing here that can touch “Stop! In the Name of Love” or “Respect.” It might have helped to drop some numbers and substitute one or two of the standards associated with Etta James or Diana Ross — just as the 1968 movie of “Funny Girl” removed the stage show’s tentative finale and substituted a more rousing and better-known torch song for its climax. The Krieger/Eyen songs sometimes suggest B-sides to Motown classics.

Still, most of them function just fine as show tunes that push the narrative along. The title tune has an infectious quality, “Family” is essential to the story, “When I First Saw You” has some romantic force, and Hudson works hard to put across her most demanding number: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Unfortunately, this cry of defiance is staged, shot and edited in a nervous MTV style that undercuts Hudson’s work and makes Effie seem operatic and overwrought. A longer, less cluttered take of the same performance might have been more effective.  

An Oscar winner for writing “Gods and Monsters,” Condon doesn’t always make the best choices as a director. He creates one particularly awkward transition too late in the movie, when he asks us to accept the performers suddenly leaving the concert stage and singing as the characters they’re playing. The film versions of “Cabaret” and “Chicago” (which Condon wrote) faced similar stage-to-offstage problems but got around them through a directorial sleight-of-hand that doesn’t seem available here.

Condon is better at suggesting the passage of years, wittily recalling the heyday of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” when whitebread rockers like Pat Boone covered rhythm and blues. The director draws a particularly sharp contrast between the Dreamettes’ early days, when they were forced to follow their manager’s orders, and their later blossoming as star attractions.

When the impulsive, business-oriented Curtis pushes the reluctant Deena into playing Cleopatra in an epic movie, Condon can’t resist underlining the absurdity of the situation. Yet it’s almost credible as a career turning point.

Anticipation can hurt a movie like “Dreamgirls.” For those who have grown up with the songs and the show and wonder why it took so long to complete a movie version, there’s bound to be disappointment that the transition isn’t perfect. But Condon does so many things right, beginning with the casting and including the staging of the concert numbers, that there’s still much here to embrace.