At 7:30 pm on May 21, the vibrant cast and crew of Dreamgirls will fill the Moran Theater of the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts with its Tony and Grammy Award-winning sound for a one-night engagement.
Inspired by the show-biz story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dreamgirls tells a similar tale of fame’s promise and pitfalls. Full of groovy tunes like ‘Step into the Bad Side,’ show-stoppers like ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and everlasting earworms like ‘Dreamgirls,’ this musical has a solid sonic presence.
Returning to Jacksonville with Dreamgirls for the first time since her graduation from Jacksonville University is Renée Veronica Freeman. Freeman, who is an active member of the ensemble, filling various roles including that of step-sister as well as that of understudy for Deena Jones, is excited to come back.
“It’s like a homecoming. I really enjoy being in the South,” Freeman says. “The hospitality is great. The weather is great, and it just feels like home.”
Freeman, who left Jacksonville just after her college graduation to pursue her performance career, says coming back as part of such an exciting show makes her feel incredibly grateful. “It’s because of the support and encouragement of the community that I’m able to be here today, and God willing, do more,” she says.
But this isn’t the Dreamgirls that audiences have seen before, Freeman says. Thanks to an overhaul of set design, it’s slicker and more thrilling than ever. With all but one of the sometimes-constraining set pieces removed and replaced with high-tech background panels, Dreamgirls moves into the 21st Century. Vivid graphics are displayed on the panels to suit the mood of a scene, charging the already-electric atmosphere. “People walk away impressed with the set all by itself,” Freeman says. “Production quality is very impressive.”
Courtesy of Dreamgirls’ co-choreographer, Shane Sparks (well-known from TV’s So You Think You Can Dance?), Dreamgirls moves and shakes in a brand new way. Though the choreography gives a nod to its ‘60s roots, Sparks’ style permeates the movement with grace and fun, according to Freeman. “It’s just groovy and sits in the pocket,” she says.
Of course, some things about Dreamgirls must always be, namely: the beautiful costumes, voluminous ‘dos and heavenly voices. Costumes, hair and makeup are a character of their own in Dreamgirls, Freeman says. The role of Deena Jones, for instance, has 16 costume changes, 15 wig changes and four to six shoe changes throughout the show.
“It’s so exciting when we first put on our makeup and eyelashes. You just transform,” Freeman says. “Women dressed so beautifully back then. It’s great to put on those A-line skirts, the sassy sweaters, and just embody the time.”
And no Dreamgirls show would be complete without the powerhouse voices to fill every inch of the stage, though Freeman says that this show’s vocals will be a wonderful surprise. “People have heard Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson sing the parts, but the first day at rehearsal, when we sat down and listened to the music, I was blown away,” Freeman says. “These voices are incredible.”
And to give these stunning voices homes are equally impressive actors and dancers whose palpable chemistry has been honed on tour buses and in long-lasting relationships. “We spend all day and all night together. We eat together. It’s really special,” Freeman says. “This cast is a huge, beating heart and audiences really feel it.”
While all of the elements are strong on their own, Freeman says it’s when rehearsals end and the show comes together that the magic happens for the audience and for the cast. “The difference in emotion is huge,” Freeman says. “The audience leaves in tears. They’re laughing; they’re crying. It’s even more tangible when you see those bodies in front of you. There’s absolutely nothing like live theatre.”