Nakisha Hampton, Chloe Johnson and Michelle Dunbar are living the dream, as The Dreams, the all-girl trio in New Venture Theatre’s “Dreamgirls,” which New Venture Theatre opens on Thursday in the Manship Theatre.
Six 30-second costume changes, the demanding show-stopping tunes and the fact that they really do feel as if they’ve become a real-life version of The Dreams all play into their anticipation.
“We didn’t know each other before auditions,” Hampton says. “We feel like this has become a sisterhood. And Greg (Williams Jr., the director) said that was one of the things he noticed at auditions, how we meshed well together.”
In the Henry Kreiger-Tom Even musical, Hampton plays the sweet-spirited Lorelle Robinson, who begins an ill-fated love affair with soul legend Jimmy “Thunder” Early. Johnson plays the beautiful Deena Jones, whose voice isn’t quite as strong as that of Effie White, played by Dunbar.
Effie’s personality also is stronger than the others’, making her the group’s natural leader, but she’s eventually edged out by Deena’s beauty.
“Effie has it all, but she’s not beautiful,” says Williams, New Venture’s founder and artistic director. “It’s as if she says, ‘I can’t give you that, but I can give you everything else.’ And she does.”
But that’s not enough when the star-struck American public expects its celebrities to be beautiful.
“Effie sings a song about this, and it’s one of the most difficult songs to perform,” Williams says. “It’s as if you have to be desperate while performing it, and Michelle does a beautiful job.”
Effie is Dunbar’s first stage role. She’s sung solos at World Shakers Church International, and also is the church’s worship and praise leader. But she’s never performed in a musical.
“Effie is a major stage role, and I’m so excited about how Michelle is developing it,” Williams says.
Dunbar and her fellow cast members had to develop their character on their own. Though most were fans of the 2006 film, no one was allowed to watch it once rehearsals began.
“And I didn’t allow them to listen to the original Broadway recording,” Williams says.
“Dreamgirls” is said to be a loose, fictional portrayal of The Supremes. It’s definitely a journey representing so many of the R&B acts of the early to mid-1960s.
The show opened in 1981 on Broadway and would eventually win six Tony Awards. Its film adaptation later would garner its share of Oscar nominations, including a best supporting actress win for Jennifer Hudson as Effie. The star-studded film also starred Beyoncé Knowles as Deena, Eddie Murphy as Jimmy and Jamie Foxx as manager Curtis Taylor Jr.
And though Williams knows audience members may come to the show looking for Beyoncé or Foxx, he wants them to walk away with New Venture’s version of the characters.
“And it’s so emotional,” Johnson says. “There are some songs where I have to tell myself not to cry.”
As Deena, Johnson sees her character as very ambitious.
“She’s always working to be more,” Johnson says. “She’s always relied on her looks, and though she has talent, she also knows that it doesn’t hurt to be beautiful.”
Johnson is an alumnus of Center Stage Performing Arts Academy in Gonzales and has performed in several musicals in Louisiana and Texas.
Hampton’s stage experience includes plays in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. She describes Lorelle as bubbly.
“She’s sweet, and she’s excited to be there with Deena and Effie,” she says. “She feeds off her relationship with them.”
And then there’s Effie, who Johnson sees as strong yet guarded.
“Greg asked us to develop a story line for our characters when we began auditions,” Johnson says. “I saw Effie as someone who had been hurt before, and she’s guarded. She’s been burned, and she wants to protect the group, because she knows what can happen. It’s happened to her, and she doesn’t want it to happen to them.”
Even more interesting is what happened when the stage trio compared story lines upon finishing Williams’ assignment. “Our stories for our characters fit together,” Hampton says. “It was as if we wrote them together, and it was meant for us to be The Dreams.”