By Laura Latzko
The musical “Dreamgirls” is known for songs like “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “Cadillac Car,” “Family,” “One Night Only” and “Dreamgirls.”
It also tells a deeper story of one group’s push for fame and the romantic relationships and friendships that complicated this rise to stardom.
The Phoenix Theatre Company will present the musical Wednesday, August 2, to Sunday, September 3.
Inspired by groups like the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” tells the story of three friends — Effie White, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson — who are trying to make it big as an R&B girl group in the ’60s. The friendship is tested by fame, fortune and competition, especially between Jones and White.
The show explores the themes of sisterhood, loyalty, perseverance, betrayal and redemption through the three friends and those closest to them.
The musical, which features music by Henry Krieger and lyrics and a book by Tom Eyen, won six Tony Awards. It inspired a 2006 film starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy.
The Phoenix Theatre Company rendition is directed by Daryl Brooks, a Chicago-based director, writer and actor who also helmed “The Color Purple” for the company. He is the producing managing director for the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago.
The production stars Miciah Lathan as White, Aja Downing as Robinson, Candace Haynes as Jones, Will James Jr. as record producer and antagonist Curtis, and Antonio King as singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early.
This is the first time that Brooks has directed “Dreamgirls,” but it has been a “dream” show for him.
With Black Ensemble Theater, he has directed other shows about girl groups. He says that like “The Color Purple,” “Dreamgirls” showcases African American actors and voices.
“It tells a Black story from a Black point of view. I think that’s one big way that it’s unique. … It’s also a human story. That’s a thing that we want to make sure that we pull out,” Brooks says.
He says the musical follows a similar storyline as the film but fleshes out the characters.
Brooks really wanted to highlight the characters as real people and delve into the relationships central in their lives.
“For me, the movie is glitz and glamour. The play is more real. It’s more down to earth. … With Effie and Deena, they go into the realities of fame and fortune and what happens when that falls apart and what happens when friendships break up because of jealousy,” he says.
It was important to Brooks that the characters resonate with audience members.
“I want to make sure that we hone in on the real moments,” Brooks says. “A lot of times we forget when we’re in entertainment that these are real people we are dealing with, with real emotions. So, I want to make sure that those moments are really brought out, that people can definitely see themselves in these characters in some way, shape or form.”
He has been working closely with the lighting, sound, set and costume designers because he says all of the different elements work together to make the time period come to life.
“Everything about it tells the story of this show. It’s not just the acting. We need to make sure the set, lights and everything help to tell the story,” Brooks says.
The show crisscrosses genres, including gospel, soul, R&B, pop and disco. Brooks says the doo-wop girl group sound is especially central to the show.
He says during rehearsals, the actresses playing the Dreams really needed to focus on creating strong harmonies. They also have to be synchronized in their movements, as female singing groups were during that time period.
It was important to find just the right actors for the show. The casting process started in December and went through May.
The performers submitted multiple videos during the audition process, including ones where they sang songs from the show.
Brooks says this allowed him to see if their voices were a good fit for the characters.
“When you have done shows for such a long time, you can hear tones. You know what you are looking for. Each character has a different voice type, so you specifically are looking for people who have that voice type,” Brooks says.
There is a mix of local and out-of-state actors in the show. Haynes hails from Brooklyn, and this is her first time working with Phoenix Theatre Company.
Haynes has always wanted to be in “Dreamgirls.”
Although this is her first time performing in “Dreamgirls,” she sang music from the show when she was going to college for musical theater. She would perform songs such as “One Night Only” and “Move (You’re Steppin’ on My Heart).”
She was the Duckling Donna understudy in a national tour of “The Donna Summer Musical” and has portrayed roles such as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” and Rusty in “Footloose.” For Disney, she played Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog.”
She has also worked for cruise lines, where she sang music from Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer.
Growing up, her mom was a big fan of Diana Ross. Haynes also appreciates other 1950s and ’60s music, as well as jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
For Haynes, one of the biggest challenges to “Dreamgirls” has been singing the dialogue. This is the first time she has ever done this in a show.
“You have to sing through the dialogue, act, keep the cadence as well, and work with your scene partner,” Haynes says.
She says the role of Jones really spoke to her because of the character’s drive and persistence.
“Her goal is to be a star, and nothing gets in the way of that. Not love, not even her group, not even her immediate family gets in the way of that. I like that drive because I’m very similar to that,” Haynes says.
She says in the role, she gets a chance to evolve from a young woman hiding secrets from her mom to a larger-than-life superstar making her own decisions.
Haynes says the musical is different than the movie because White is the center instead of Jones. However, Jones does have a very central role.
The show really explores the complex dynamic between White and Jones. The two start out very close, but begin to clash over a love triangle with Curtis and the makeup of the Dreams when Jones becomes lead singer.
“I think it’s important for the audience to understand how difficult certain decisions are for Deena, so they just don’t write her off as a diva,” Haynes says.
“I think it’s also important for the audience to know how much Effie loves Deena, but she’s conflicted. You’re stealing my man. You’re stealing my dreams. You’re my backup. It’s just a sucker punch in the face, in terms of friendship. I think the audience needs to see that dynamic. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s beautiful at the same time.”
Phoenix Theatre Company’s Production of “Dreamgirls”
WHEN: Various times Wednesday, August 2, through Sunday, September 3
WHERE: Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix
COST: Tickets start at $50
INFO: 602-254-2151, phoenixtheatre.com