More than half the cast of the Civic Theatres upcoming three-weekend run of Dreamgirls had never been in a stage musical before joining this production, according to the shows director, Dianne Shaw, and its assistant director Dwight Wilson.
They were all reasonably seasoned performers in various contexts, Shaw says, but they hadnt given much thought, or hadnt been offered many opportunities, to do theater.
Dreamgirls, a probable fictionalization of some early happenings in and around Motown Records, opens Saturday at Arts United Center.
Shaw says the biggest challenge for her as a director did not involve teaching anybody how to sing.
They could sing, she says. But (they needed to learn how) to move well, embrace dialogue and create characters. Not just sing. Basically, what I said to them was, Let me take you as a singer and make you into a character that people care about.
Shaw gave them homework.
A lot of homework, she says. It mostly had to do with character, figuring out who you are. I would stop them in the middle of scenes and ask, Who are you? What do you want right now?
Jaché Sharnise, who plays Deena, says she wasnt prepared for the amount of work that would be involved.
At first I thought, Well, its practice from 7 to 10, she says. But its outside of rehearsals. You have to come home and really study your part, really understand what your goals are in the play.
Sharnises part is not-so-eerily reminiscent of Diana Ross.
Like Ross, Deena replaces the original lead singer in her pop group and romances a future music mogul.
That mogul, Curtis Taylor Jr., may or may not have been based on Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. (the shows creators have purportedly denied it). But he is the closest thing to a villain that Wilson says he has played in a lengthy theater career.
It has long been a dream of Wilsons to mount a production of Dreamgirls in Fort Wayne.
When the Civic agreed to produce the play, Wilson says he and Kontrell Tyler (who plays James Thunder Early in the show) started recruiting cast members from a pool of talented people they knew.
Such recruitment is unusual, but a show such as this – with a couple of dozen parts for black performers – might not find the actors it needs through a traditional audition process.
We knew the talent was there, he says. Everyone in the cast can sing. It was a matter of harnessing that talent, directing it, getting everyone to buy in to the ensemble concept – (the concept) that not everyone can be the lead. I give Dianne Shaw a lot of credit for explaining the nature of this play, its ensemble nature.
The days before opening night – with sets, and costumes and technical elements finally coming in place – have been eye-opening ones for the cast, Wilson says.
Theres a wow factor, he says. Theyre finally understanding where this amazing process has been headed.
Shaw says Dreamgirls debuted at a point in Broadway history when directors were trying to streamline shows, eliminating unnecessary blackouts and breaks in the action.
Thats the big difference between this and the average play, Wilson says. Most of the time, youre going to have blackouts and time to breathe but not in this puppy. Once it opens, its like a freight train. A beautiful freight train.
I am laughing about it, Shaw says. It is such a machine. You absolutely have to exit on wing three because thats where your dresser is. On wing two, a set is coming in so dont make a mistake.
If you decide to embellish your song a bit, she says, theres a good chance youll look around and realize youre in a different scene.