Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dreamgirls in Cathedral City

For a Christmas afternoon treat, we drove to a bizarre mall in Cathedral City that contained the Coachella Valley's only Imax Theatre...

...along with stores, restaurants, housing...

...not to mention City Hall and the Police Department.

This blog's namesake signage turns out to be over a faux-Moorish/Spanish retail and entertainment complex...

...in the middle of the desert.

The complex was built in 1998 and is some weird new civic planning mutation where the Police Station looked like a cute set out of "Veronica Mars.

The entire complex is dominated by a multiplex movie theatre called the Mary Pickford, which is where we were headed to see the opening day of "Dreamgirls."

The movie was a huge disappointment, particularly after all the hype asserting that the filmmakers hadn't screwed up the material, but had delivered some kind of masterpiece.

The original Broadway musical was always a troubled show, partly because everyone in the production was taking way too much cocaine (that's what people were doing in those days), and Jennifer Holliday identified with the role of Effie White a little too closely. She was reportedly the poster child for an insecure, screwed-up, insane diva who made every performance a backstage drama that was more outrageous than her "And I'm Telling You's" signature aria.

I had the great good fortune to see the show in its original Michael Bennett staging, after the original cast flamed out in Los Angeles just after leaving Broadway. The production was recast and played for a number of months at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, and to this day it's still one of the handful of great theatrical experiences of my life.

The musical is written as an ensemble piece for six to eight characters and without Ms. Holliday swallowing the show whole, it was possible to see how brilliantly the piece had been put together. The book and lyrics were by Tom Eyen, an old gay avant-garde playwright from the 1960s/1970s being given his first (and last) Broadway gig. The music was by Henry Krieger who wrote a perfectly serviceable score that is in a Broadway showtune style circa 1980s (think Marvin Hamlisch's "A Chorus Line") but that also is fairly clever in its Motown pastiches, and above all allows for improvisation by the singing actors, which tends to characterize great black pop music. The staging by Michael Bennett was probably the most extraordinary of his career, a mixture of the minimalist (no set other than 2 twirling lucite towers filled with stage lights) and the maximalist (huge, simple props whisking on and off the stage like a dream).

The filmmaker should be commended for the casting which is strong from top to bottom, though Eddie Murphy is getting overpraised. James Thunder Early is one of the most interesting characters in "Dreamgirls," and can hijack a performance easily. The character is an unlikely, but fascinating version, of wild man James Brown who is being groomed to be a smooth Nat King Cole crooner for Jewish casino showrooms. His breakdowns, where the "soul" man can't be suppressed, are the heart of the musical.

So is Effie, the fictional mixture of the Supremes' Flo Ballard and the self-destructive, still-surviving Etta James, and her usurpation by the prettier, "whiter" Deena/Diana Ross. I just wish somebody besides the writer/director Bill Condon had been put in charge of the project. Moving a camera in a 360 degree circle while somebody is trying to sing a musical number is mildly interesting the first time, annoying the second, and excruciating the fourteenth iteration. The musical direction is also awful, making everything sound alike, when the entire point of the score is the black/white/rough/smooth contrasts and how they work in both art and the public marketplace. So, nice try, Mr. Condon, you didn't fuck it up egregiously like the movie version of "A Chorus Line" but I'm afraid you didn't do the material justice.


Anonymous said...

I love the little signs--Police, and City Hall. Talk about anchor tenants!

I want to know more about the mall, can you provide a link?

Anonymous said...

I saw the stage show of Dreamgirls at the Golden Gate Theatre in the early 1980's (not sure of the year) and believe the show fully deserved the huge standing ovation it received. It was the most incredible musical theatre I had ever seen. While I enjoyed the film, it was nothing like the shattering experience the stage show was.

Civic Center said...

Dear Chris Koppel: Thanks for confirming what I've long felt. That particular production at the Golden Gate was extraordinary and I've still not seen anything quite as good theatrically (in terms of touring Broadway shows) since.

Also, everyone I know who saw the New York and Los Angeles productions really disliked the show while saying "Jennifer Holliday was fabulous," which just leads me to the conclusion that she literally hogged the show. Whoever was playing Effie in San Francisco was definitely the lead character, but she gave everybody else their moments to shine.