Elephantiasis is supposed to be a tropical disease, but in the theaters it strikes in the winter months, right before Oscar time. In this year’s newest outbreak, Bill Condon, screenwriter for Chicago, directs and adapts Dreamgirls, the hit 1981 stage musical, for the age of bigger films.
Dreamgirls takes a fluid, small-scale piece and pumps it up to pachyderm size. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s musical debuted when disco was ravaging the world, thus the show’s much-reprised title theme sounds more like Giorgio Morodor than Motown’s hit team Holland-Dozier-Holland. That’s surprising, since Dreamgirls is so firmly based on the Supremes that rumor says Diana Ross walked out during the first act when she went to see it.
Dreamgirls is an extremely basic backstage musical, wrought by people who probably could have acted out every Alice Faye/Don Ameche film ever made. Chunky Effie (Jennifer Hudson), willowy Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and the half-bright Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) make up the Dreamettes, friends since childhood.
The story begins with the trio losing a fixed battle of the bands in Detroit. A lucky break gets them adopted as the touring band of R&B hitmaker James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), legendary as a jive turkey who hits on his backup singers. A Berry Gordy figure named Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) moves laterally from Cadillac sales to music producing. The Dreamettes–whom Curtis renames the Dreams (rhymes with “Supremes”)–hit the charts.
The movie’s slighter moments prove to be more pleasurable than the by-the-book conflict and drama: the slinky gowns and towering wigs; the travel montages; a kid band pastiching the Jackson 5; and the way the girls are coached to turn on a dime onstage. At its best, Dreamgirls serves as a tribute to the satisfying myth that a somebody is just a nobody who got the right chance.
As an actress, Beyoncé is really just a pair of lovely eyes. She is just as uneasy onscreen as Ross was everywhere but in Lady Sings the Blues. Jennifer Hudson is sparkly and barbed as Effie, whose heftiness gets her shoved off to one side, just as in real life the trouble-prone Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in the Supremes. The droll, wickedly accomplished Hudson survives a badly underwritten part that tries to have it both ways: claiming that Effie is too ungrateful and troublesome to let the show go on and yet wanting us to feel she’s been shoved aside and betrayed by Curtis’ overwhelming urge to whiten up the Dreams’ sound.
While it’s her acting that really appeals, Hudson has a vast voice–a huge one, the kind that slaughters crowds–which is why so many thousands rallied for her to win her spot on American Idol. Hudson gives 150 percent when she sings, and she’s a master of those powerfully ornate vocal runs that turn every simple song into a Moorish palace of arabesques.
On a bare stage, alone, Hudson’s Effie is crying out for love that no man, no family, no audience could ever supply. It’s a show-stopper, of course, and at the preview screening there was spontaneous applause. And those who raved are at one with the long dead crowds who applauded Sophie Tucker, Kate Smith and other big voices of the past.
‘Dreamgirls’ has an exclusive San Francisco engagement Dec. 15-24, yet another reason to plan a City Day before Christmas. It opens everywhere Dec. 25.
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