Dreamgirls at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore

There’s a dream cast, a dream orchestra, and a dream production of the soulful and tuneful Broadway musical Dreamgirls, now rocking the stage at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore. After producing Dreamgirls in 2007, this new Toby’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical is directed by David Gregory, a veteran Toby’s performer and Artistic Director of Teatro101, a small theatre troupe in Baltimore.

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

Dreamgirls takes the audience backstage into the professional careers and personal lives of an all-girls 60s singing group. We are there with lead-singer Effie White (Crystal Freeman), Deena Jones (Shayla Simmons), and Lorrell Robinson (Ashley Johnson) as they rise to fame, engage in backstage squabbles, and develop romantic and damaging relationships with their manager Curtis Taylor (Jonathan Randle). Along for the ride are Effie’s brother and composer C.C. White (David Little), and hyper-singer/performer James ‘Thunder’ Early (Ray Hatch).

From the get-go, the glitzy and glittery colorful costumes by Janine Sunday, the colorful lighting by Lyn Joslin, and star-making performances of the cast – complement the dazzling songs composed by Henry Kreiger with lyrics by Tom Eyen, who also wrote the book. The simple set by David A. Hopkins allows the fast-moving action to be the center of attention.

Ray Hatch as James 'Thunder' Early. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Toby’s veteran Ray Hatch plays James ‘Thunder’ Early (he also played him in the 2007 production), and is fabulous as the James Brown-like performer who shimmies and wiggles his way through his performances and his female fans. His energetic performance of “Fake Your Way to the Top!” almost blows the roof off. Mr. Hatch also contributes the choreography that employs dance styles from the 60s and 70s.

The hard-working cast and ensemble – filled with athletic dancers – get their motor running in high gear when they perform “Cadillac Car,” with some of the dancers pretending to play instruments. Their beautiful harmonies run as smooth as a Cadillac car’s engine! Another slick number is “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” which features ensemble members wearing gold vests, black hats, and carrying briefcases while performing cool moves in silhouette with hot red lights beaming down upon them.

Crystal Freeman as Effie White. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Crystal Freeman, as Effie White, is simply a force of nature! So moving is her rendition of  “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going”, that the night I attended the show, the audience gave her a standing ovation! And what an actress she has become since playing Effie in the 2007 production here at Toby’s. Crystal has grown in the role of the firecracker Effie – who gets replaced on The Dreams for unfair reasons. In her volcanic rendition of “I Am Changing,” she reclaims her self-esteem and grabs the audience and never lets go of them until the final curtain. It’s a tour-de-force.

Jonathan Randle is superb as the car salesman-turned-corrupt-manager Curtis Taylor. The highlight of his performance is his sweet and sincere rendition of “You Are My Dream,” sung to his now-rebelling wife Deena. It’s one of the few moments in the musical where you actually like Curtis, and it’s all due to Randle’s multi-layered and well-directed performance.

As for the remaining members of The Dreams – Ashley Johnson’s Lorrell is hysterical.  Whether it’s a turn of the head or inflection in her voice, Johnson adds much needed humor to the show. She’s also a fine dancer, and a stretch of the arm or twist of the hip adds some ‘steamed heat’ to her performance.

Shayla Simmons’s Deena is beautifully acted. Her glowing beauty and heartfelt singing draw you in, as you watch her become putty in the hands of her manipulating husband, Curtis.

Director David Gregory keeps the show moving at a fast pace. He not only highlights the fabulous Henry Krieger/Tom Eyen score – but he also tells the story of these intense characters so well. So many other directors of productions of Dreamgirls (that I have seen in the past) forgot that there was a great book here, and Mr. Gregory’s cast tells that story through both their beautiful vocals and powerful acting.

Enjoy a terrific dinner and this supreme production of Dreamgirls. All you have to do is make a reservation, and you’ll be there….at Toby’s Dinner of Baltimore to see this dreamy Dreamgirls!

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.

Dreamgirls plays through November 13th 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.

Read Joel Markowitz’s interview with Director David Gregory.