As Martin Luther King Jr. pursued his famous dream, Berry Gordy perfected a different one in the Detroit offices of Motown Records. Through the mid-1960s, he refined the label’s girl groups to fit an image of African American women as the epitome of sophistication and glamour. The Supremes, the thinly veiled focus of the music-industry musical DREAMGIRLS, were trained “to perform before kings and queens,” according to Motown’s head of artist development.
Far less glamorous are the backstage truths in this condensed—at times, too condensed—roman á clef. As Tom Eyen’s lyrics telegraph plot points, Curtis Taylor, the Gordy character (flinty Lawrence Street, in this Theatre Raleigh production), articulates his dream—to make white audiences think they need black music “to make [them] feel as good as us.” He then exerts increasing control over the Dreamettes and soul singer James “Thunder” Early (Christian Thompson) in an eerie “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.”
Though Thomson doesn’t always sell numbers such as “I Meant You No Harm,” actor Dorian McCorey, as Lorrell, nails her second-act complaint, “Ain’t No Party.” Brittany Walter’s Effie (based on mercurial Supremes founder Florence Ballard) succeeds in “One Night Only” and “I’m Not Going.” As Deena, Alexis Sims channels Diana Ross in the title song. Most long-time conflicts resolve too quickly in the final sections, but this production animates the light and dark sides of these dreams.
Elsewhere in Raleigh, there’s at least one familiar—though unexpected—face in North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s production of 9 TO 5. It’s odd when the show’s composer, country legend Dolly Parton, greets us, via projection, as the narrator of this musical version of the film starring herself, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Still, her mediated presence is preferable to the digital animations that serve as backdrops during the rest of the show.
Mary Beth Hollmann is a determined secretarial supervisor, Violet, and A.C. Donohue brings dimension to the downhome Doralee. Under James Ilsley’s direction, Mary Reilly starts out underdeveloped as sheltered divorcee Judy, but her vocals gradually warm the character. Bill Andrews is a hissable Franklin Hart, the ultra-sexist bad guy, and Natalie Turgeon gets laughs as his second banana, Roz.
But with one or two anthems too many, a sameness that even pre-recorded orchestration and backing vocals can’t hide creeps into Parton’s score. Though its heart is in the right place, this 9 to 5 feels more like overtime by the end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Small wonders."