‘Dreamgirls’ dazzles on opening night

YOUNGSTOWN — Director Trevail Maurice assembles an all-star team of Mahoning Valley talent to get Youngstown Playhouse’s 96th season off to a magnificent start with “Dreamgirls.”

Youngstown native Joshua William Green came home from New York to play Curtis Taylor Jr., the Berry Gordy-like music manager who won’t let love, loyalty or friendship stand in the way of his vision of success.

He brought a commanding presence, impressive vocals and even more impressive dance moves (choreographed by Kiara Jones) to the role.

James Major Burns just returned from his first professional theater gig, playing Donkey in a dinner theater production of “Shrek the Musical.” He takes on another Eddie Murphy screen role here as James Thunder Early, a soul star who’s doesn’t fit Taylor’s crossover business plan.

Burns is a ham in the best sense of the word. It’s impossible not to watch him when he’s on stage. He’s playing a James Brown-level showman and, if anything, exceeds the requirements of the part.

His second act “Rap” was equal parts hilarious and exhilarating. And audience members couldn’t be faulted for thinking, after his first number “Fake Your Way to the Top,” that nothing was going to top that.

But in addition to those local stars, Maurice brought in a ringer. Clevelander Sharleen Riley plays Effie Melody White, the plus-size lead singer of The Dreamettes / The Dreams, who is pushed to the background and ultimately out of the girl group.

It’s a dream role. Jennifer Holliday won a Tony Award and became a star playing the role on Broadway. Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar playing the role in the film version. But it’s also a role that comes with massive expectations.

The opening night crowd was waiting to be wowed by the first act closer “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going.” Riley delivered. She hit every note and made the audience feel the pain in every word.

Her fellow Dreams also shined. Jennifer Zamis went from meek and innocent to glamorous diva as Deena Jones. Arielle T. Green was the perfect foil for Burns’ antics as Lorrell, who gets increasingly vocal about her dissatisfaction being Early’s mistress and not his wife.

Maurice benefited from the talent he had to work with, but opening night had a flow and seamless quality to it with brisk transitions between scenes. There were times when he had the cast play the roles a bit too broadly, but “Dreamgirls” is a show that lends itself to that approach. It was a confident, accomplished directing debut.

Musical directors Jaron M. LeGrair and Curtis Tate and the talented pit band handled the variety of musical styles, shifting from early soul to ’60s pop to funk. There were some problems with the band overwhelming the vocals, but it was corrected early on.

The technical elements matched the skill of the cast. Screens, shimmering curtains and Ellen Licitra’s lighting design established the many locale shifts.

Perhaps the greatest work of all is by costume designers Therese Pitzulo and Wendy Akers. The sheer volume of gowns and suits they had to create is staggering. I don’t know what the costume budget was, but I’m guessing Pitzulo and Akers worked miracles in giving this production of “Dreamgirls” the visual pop it demands.

Opening night was sold out, and that’s likely to continue during the two-weekend run. Don’t wait to get tickets.

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