Theatre Kibbitz: David Gregory on Directing Dreamgirls at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore

Watch out for the muti-talented David Gregory. Not only is he a great singer, dancer and actor, he is a fabulous director. His own theatre company Teatro101 has produced several of my favorite musical productions of the past two years. I recently named his production of The Wild Party as one of my Favorite Musicals of last year.

Director David Gregory

I was thrilled that Toby Orenstein selected David to direct this production of Dreamgirls. This production of Dreamgirls moves quickly and has a fabulous cast, and stunning performances by Ray Hatch (Jimmy) and Crystal Freeman (Effie). But the star of this Dreamgirls is a talented director named David Gregory.

Joel: How did you get involved with Dreamgirls? Why did you want to direct this production?

David: I was involved in the last incarnation of Dreamgirls about four years ago (2007);  at that time, Toby Orenstein had asked me to direct the production. I hesitated at first, considering Dreamgirls was the largest production I had directed up to that point; plus, I was working in a theatre with different budgets, technical constraints, management, and a whole new sets of rules. It was such a turning point for me as a director, and taught me a lot about casts, collaboration, and my own process.

Fast forward to 2011, when I found out they were remounting the show. Initially, I was not certain about re-directing the production. The more I thought about it, the more I was attracted to the idea of trying to give the production a different spin/tone.  I actually approached Toby and asked her if I could direct it again. I knew that in four years I had grown tremendously as a director and learned a lot as the Artistic Director of my own theatre company – Teatro101. It was a way of proving to myself just how differently I could direct the same show –  for the better I hope!  Plus, let’s face it –Dreamgirls gives you the best of the showbiz world: the glitz, the music, the voices, the touching stories, the heartbreak, the costumes, the dance. Who wouldn’t want the challenge of making all those work together?

What personal and professional experiences made you the perfect choice to direct this production?

I’m not a showgirl (well, not all the time) but I think that as far as the heart of the story goes, anyone in showbiz can relate to the ‘ups and downs’ it exposes you to (like Lorrell says in the show), so I would ultimately say that my passion for the material and a deep understanding of its characters gives me brownie points for being the perfect choice for director. I am not sure I would use “perfect” choice, but the right one for this particular production in this theatre.

David Gregory as Benny in 'RENT' at Toby's Columbia. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Most importantly, I am always looking for ways to bring a new perspective to existing materials – it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using Michael Bennett’s original staging, but what’s the fun in that? I also had great working relationships with Cedric Lyles (the fantastic music director) and Ray Hatch (the fabulous choreographer), so I knew that the experience itself would trump all aspects of the process – for cast and crew alike!

Did you cast the leads, and what were auditions like? How many actresses auditioned for Effie and why was Crystal chosen?

Ultimately, casting did rest on my shoulders. However, in a production of this magnitude, no director could possibly make decisions on their own. Cedric provided his keen insight on the musical abilities of the auditionees and Ray challenged their dance skills – giving me the maximum exposure to their talents in the shortest time possible. Plus, Toby’s years of experience in getting a reading on actors at auditions proved to be a valuable asset as well.

Auditions were a pretty painless process (for the most part, wink!). In fact, we had one day of callbacks where we invited everyone back to sing a few songs: the girls had to learn “One Night Only” (Effie’s Part) and “Dreamgirls”. The boys had to learn “Family” and another uptempo number I can’t recall at the moment. But it was obvious from those callbacks who fit into one slot.

Although we had done the production before, we went into it knowing that this was going to be a complete ‘reinvention’ of the previous production – including the cast.  So even cast members from the previous production had to reaudition, including Crystal Freeman. As far as the Effie potentials were concerned, Crystal opened her mouth to sing “One Night Only” and you instantly knew it was her part.  Have you seen the show? You’ll see why. But we were very fortunate to nab so much talent from one callback: our spectacular Dreams (Shayla, Ashley, Dayna), Jimmy (Ray), Curtis (Jon), Marty (Anthony), CC (David L), as well as a terrific ensemble that really hold their own to the leads and bring just as much to the energy and enthusiasm of the production. Without that perfect combination of talent, my job is useless. I love them so dearly for coming so far since those first few days!

What is your take on Effie? What is it about Crystal’s performance that says, “She IS Effie”? What advice have you given Crystal on playing Effie that you feel has made her performance unique and special?

Crystal Freeman as Effie White in 'Dreamgirls.' Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Ok, so I feel like Effie is such a complex and intricate character, it would take days for me to get into it. In fact, it took Crystal and I three months to figure stuff out and she is still discovering things through her performance. If I had to sum it up in a sentence, Effie really is the embodiment of a person’s dreams, their fight to get it, their fall from it, and hopefully (unfortunately not always the case) their growth into themselves. Is that too abstract?  It’s about love for oneself and finding that inner confidence to triumph.

Every character goes through that in the production.  To say that Crystal can sing the $@!#$ out of the part is really the understatement of the century. But I have worked with Crystal before in many, many, many productions…and I knew going in that she could sing the notes. But unlike other Effies, we set out to bring out the emotional and deeply personal aspects of the role. It sounds really cliché, but the goal was to bring the character to life with acting first and the singing would fall into place naturally.

I know throughout the process she hated me so much, because we worked for hours on end on the smallest section of songs. “I’m Telling You” took us several weeks and dozens of improvisations, acting exercises, old college tricks, and experimentation.  Cedric approached the music direction like a director and so did Ray; character was a top priority in all of our rehearsals. There was not a rehearsal (even in music or dance) that I was not on top of her (and the Dreams for that matter) to make sure that everything she chose as an actress made sense for the character. I remember telling her “You’ve got to think about these situations personally, as if they were happening to you”….and from there, it was a ridiculous transformation into an amazing performance. We have grown so close because of this process, and she helped me grow as a director as well. But ultimately, it’s what she brings to the show – and let me tell you, that it’s not like any other you’ve seen before.  I’m so thrilled for her to be able to share that with you all.

What makes this Dreamgirls so unique and different than other productions?

I think more than the glitz and the obviously fantastic voices, this production focuses A LOT on the storytelling. Most productions of this show rely on fantastic singing to get them through, ignoring what’s really important for audience. You will be able to feel the anger, the heartache, the love, the anxiety, and most important, the bond of this fantastic group of artists – both as characters in the story as well as actors pouring their hearts out every performance. Combine that with their superb singing and really polished aspects of production, and the impact is tremendous. Come see the show, and you’ll see what I am talking about.

What scenes were the greatest challenges for you and how did you ultimately solve those challenges?

Every single scene. (Insert laugh here!) It’s such a mammoth show, it really is all a blur at the moment. But if I were to have to choose a few, I would start with “Family”. It is such a turning point in the show – it’s where things start to go sour really, really, really quickly. We had to restage the scene several times in order to the actors to be able to get into their parts at that particular moment in the story, but once we found it – it became one of the more touching moments of the show for me. I would also say that the larger montages that involve both dance numbers and scenes interwoven (“One Night Only Disco”) were tremendously difficult. The entire opening Apollo sequence lasts over 20 minutes and is treated as one scene, but in it you have dialogue, show numbers, different locations, frontstage, backstage, dancers, etc. It’s ri-di-culous. But hopefully, you’ll love it.

Describe the stage here and the challenges it posed and the benefits of having this performance space in directing this show?

It’s not one of the easiest stages to work with. It is proscenium, but in a way it’s almost a thrust since the audiene stretches so far the left and right. So I worked with Set Designer David Hopkins, who did a fantastic job in helping me stay true to my vision of the show, and because of him, I was able to stretch the show all the way across the stage, all the way back, and across many steps and levels. With so many people in the production, you need the space!

Have you appeared in any other productions of Dreamgirls, and who did you play?

Funny you should ask. Cedric (Music Director) and I met doing a production of Dreamgirls at Baltimore City Community College. I was Curtis and he played Marty. It was a blast and since then, we’ve done the show together about three times – so this thing is following us around. But because of that first production, he is not only one of my best collaborators, he’s an incredible and close friend.

What was your vision for this production when you started the process, and how did the design team bring your vision to the stage?

I could not have accomplished any of this without the help of the spectacular design team. As I mentioned earlier, David Hopkin’s set allowed me to maximize the potential of a very oddly shaped stage, and he constructed it in such a way that I was able to keep the show moving at a very vary fast pace.

Ray’s choreography certainly worked hand in hand with the tone and pace of the show, adding some of the most exciting moments of the show. Lynn Joslin’s lighting enhances the story in such a creative way, that it becomes integral to the show and she’s fantabulous! Jeanine Sunday and I have worked together several times as performers, but not on this level of production. Her costumes are simply divalicious – making it all work creatively while staying within budget is no small feat. Her costuming skills are as brilliant as her talents as a performer and mommy!

Listen – the show involves so many wonderful, spectacular people who all helped make this a terrific show and experience: Corey Brown (sound), Props (Amy Kaplan), our ridiculously phenomenal band, Sarah Splaine (who takes care of the show as stage manager every night), Vickie Johnson (production manager) and of course, our lovely boss Toby Orenstein.

Dreamgirls is a production that’s fast-paced and always on the move. How have you kept this pace in this production? What directorial choices have you made that will maintain the pacing throughout your production?

It’s really about the combination of many things that have to be in place: transitions are key, the energy of actors is crucial, and the simplicity of the staging and design.  Those three things have helped it keep its pace. It was one of my top priorities.

Let’s talk about your Teatro101. I have honored your musicals –Violet, Side Shows and The Wild Party  in my recent Favorite Musicals of the Year articles. When did you start Teatro101, and what is coming up in your season?

Teatro101 started up in July 2009. It was sort of a strange coincidence of events (I’ll save that for later reading gossip!). In any case, we opened with a really hilarious play The Little Dog Laughed and have since done Side Show, Violet, The Gears (U.S. Premiere), The Shadow Box, The Wild Party…(please tell me I am not forgetting any of them!).

We are actually starting work on a 6-performances only staging of Brooklyn the Musical – which will be held at Theatre Project in Baltimore from December 7 – 11th.  We’re excited about it. It’s a nice family show, great singing, and we’re making it a special stylized concert staging of the production. Casting is almost complete! As for the spring, I have high hopes of being able to secure the rights for a particular show I have been trying to direct and that’s really, really different than what you might expect from Teatro101. Stay tuned!

When did you first have the itch to direct?

It really was not until about 6 or so years ago. I had been doing shows for a while and always had something I wanted to say as an actor in shows, but I didn’t, because it wasn’t my job. So instead of complaining about the process and/or creativity of a show, I thought I should try to direct something. I am forever grateful to Spotlighters Theatre (Fuzz Roark and the late Bob Russell). They let me have my first directing gig (Songs For A New World); I will treasure every moment of that experience. It’s truly been one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s also allowed me to see thing differently as an actor in a show. I tell you, actors should have to direct a show at least once (or work on production). So many actors criticize and complain about things without having any experience on the other side. I tell you, it’s a world of difference!

Where did you get your theatre and vocal training?

Spain (where I grew up), and especially my very small hometown, was not really big on theatre. So there were no formal training programs or many classes offered. I grew up learning flamenco since I was 5 (I taught it as well), which is what might explain my affinity to performance. Throughout high school and college I did shows here and there and I also took some voice lessons in college. Until college, most of my performance experience was on the job training, which is often the best way. I then went on to grad school (twice) for arts admin and a master of fine arts degree and the latter degree from Towson really opened my eyes to new ways of thinking. Its focus on nontraditional theatre and all its aspects (playwriting, lighting, Sound Design, performance, puppetry…the list goes on) rounded me out as an artist. It also inspired me to teach theatre, which is why I am pursuing my PhD at College Park in Theatre and Performance Studies. Currently I am teaching a musical theatre history class, so my hobby ties nicely back into my actual day job!

What other shows are you dying to direct and why?

Once I get word from the licensing companies, then I can tell you – I’m trying to make that happen this year!

You live in the Baltimore area so why is Dreamgirls such a Baltimore-type show? Why are Baltimore audiences going to love this production of Dreamgirls? 

Baltimore is so appropriate for Dreamgirls in so many capacities. First off, Baltimore is a city that is constantly producing new artists and groups at a very rapid rate. Now, regardless of your personal tastes, you can’t help but to attribute that to the strong creative presence that the city holds. It’s not true just in theatre, but in music and design as well. More obviously, the largely African-American make up of the community allows us to relate to this story on a more personal level. Whether you are African-American or NOT, then it’s a way to identify with a very important and rich cultural past – a history that has influence music and pop culture across many races and generations. It’s a way to also celebrate the contributions of another culture that we may not personally know much about.

What is it about the show that still packs them in 29 years after the show opened on Broadway?

I think that the songs are so wonderful, it’s hard not to be taken in by the emotionality of this show. Showbiz itself appeals to popular culture – just look at the fascination with all these reality shows today. I consider Dreamgirls the musical version of what many of these shows (like the Kardashians) try to show – rise to fame, the successes, the failures, the glamour…(trust me, we blow the Kardashians out of the water!). I also think that every single one of us can identify with having those points in our lives where we feel betrayed and/or disappointed with someone close to us. It’s a universal message.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Dreamgirls here at Toby’s Baltimore?

The important thing that I would like people to take with them after seeing this production of Dreamgirls is that there is high-quality, professional, and fantastic theatre happening right around the corner. Audiences have the chance to witness a production of Dreamgirls that places as much emphasis on the story as it does the singing and dancing. But most important, I want them to take away the memory of an unforgettably wonderful experience at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

The Dreams: Ashley Johnson, Crystal Freeman, Shayla Simmons, and Dayna Quincy. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

 

Dreamgirls plays through November 13, 2011, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore – 5625 O’Donnell Street, in Baltimore, MD. For reservations, call (410) 649-1660, or purchase your tickets online.

Next: My interview with Crystal Freeman, who plays Effie White.