BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Dreamgirls in the West End? Bless my soul! Rehearsals begin for London version of the show
Actresses Ibinabo Jack, Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley who play girl group the Dreams in the new Dreamgirls show
We're your Dreamgirls, boys! We’ll make you happy.
The songs from the musical Dreamgirls were being blasted out of speakers at the studios of super-photographer Greg Williams as he snapped actresses Amber Riley, Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack, who play fictional girl group the Dreams in the show, which began rehearsing in London on Monday.
The ladies are wearing golden gowns and Supremes-style hairpieces for the occasion.
Producer Sonia Friedman jokes that it’s sometimes difficult to explain to people that Dreamgirls, with score by composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Tom Eyen, didn’t begin with the 2006 movie starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose.
Friedman asked Casey Nicholaw to direct, because they’d enjoyed working together on The Book Of Mormon. Turns out, Dreamgirls is his favourite show (like me, he saw the original 1981 production on Broadway).
Then there was a huge search to find someone to play Effie, the backbone of the Dreams — and the group’s best singer. She’s the one who brings the house down with the soul anthem And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.
Once Riley, who starred in Glee, was cast as Effie, Friedman and Nicholaw built the rest of the company around her.
LaFontaine (who like Riley lives in Los Angeles) was cast as Deena, the svelte singer who is prettier than Effie, but doesn’t have her pipes. Soon after that, Jack won the part of Lorrell, the third member of the group.
‘I don’t believe I’m here!’ cried Riley, as she relaxed on a sofa and let Friedman’s poodles Teddy and Buddy rest on her. She was missing her own dogs (she has a poodle and a poodle-maltese cross — a ‘maltipoo’ — back home).
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‘I’m away from my family, on the other side of the world,’ she said. ‘It’s so exciting to do something like this, on my own!’ Amber knows the Dreamgirls score well, having sung numbers from it during her Glee days. She will be on Graham Norton’s show tonight performing And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.
Riley saw her part in Dreamgirls as a coming-of-age story: ‘It’s about girl power. Though the Dreams have their problems, essentially they do come back together. It’s about the sisterhood.’
The photoshoot for the new Dreamgirls had a large crew of hair and make-up folk, along with the photographer’s assistants. The show’s associate director Alison Pollard was present, to ensure hands rested just so on hips and arms waved in the correct way.
When Riley said something about her full-length slip, Friedman barked: ‘Just cut it! We won’t be using it again.’ Two people duly appeared with scissors and sliced the offending petticoat asunder.
LaFontaine understudied the role of Deena in a production that played in LA and Japan. But this show, which runs at the Savoy Theatre from November 19, is the first time she’s starred in the role.
The show is based on the hit film Dreamgirls that starred Anika Noni Rose, Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson
She described Deena as a complex woman who is sometimes portrayed as two-dimensional. ‘She’s the pretty one. She didn’t really have the best voice, but she had the best body, the best wigs and the coolest dresses.’
When I first saw Dreamgirls, it seemed clear that the Dreams bore more than a passing resemblance to the Supremes — though Jack felt The Chiffons and The Shirelles should also be included in the conversation.
‘It’s that sisterly union of strong black women, singing together, who find strength in each other,’ Jack commented.
Amen to that, I think, as I realise that I’ve been talking to just such a combination of strong black women.
Natasha, you SHALL go to the ball...
Natasha J. Barnes describes herself as a ‘country girl’. She grew up in Hampshire, close to the New Forest, riding ponies.Natasha J. Barnes
Though she started singing lessons when she was young, she didn’t think they would amount to much. ‘I was tone deaf, and couldn’t sing in tune,’ she said.
But then she went to an opera singer, who helped her find her voice, and now she boasts the most incredible range, and is comfortable with opera, rock and gospel.
Natasha J Barnes who was the understudy to Sheridan Smith in the hit show Funny Girl
Natasha has always worked and, thanks to parts in Spring Awakening, Lend Me A Tenor, American Idiot and Chess, had built up a first-class reputation in the business.
Then came Funny Girl (which ends its run at the Savoy tomorrow night).
When she took the job as understudy to leading lady Sheridan Smith, she told her mum she was unlikely to go on as Fanny Brice. Now, by her count, she has played Fanny 137 times (while Smith was indisposed) and in the process, become a name herself.
That will only be enhanced by producer Michael Harrison’s decision to sign her for the title role in Cinderella, the panto he and Andrew Wright are directing at the Palladium from December 9.
Natasha will be playing opposite the likes of Amanda Holden, Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary. When I talked to her recently, I was touched by the way she spoke of Smith. ‘Sheridan’s so amazing and I learned so much watching her work. And she gave me important advice about going on for her. She told me not to pretend. She said: “If you go on as Fanny, you have to do it your way.”’
Natasha told me she is looking forward to having a break before starting rehearsals for Cinderella.
She’s already had the fittings for her ball gown. ‘It feels like I’m driving a vehicle!’ she joked. ‘There are layers and layers. I don’t know how I’m going to dance with Lee (Mead, as Prince Charming).’
So far, nothing has been set for her following Cinderella — but there’s talk of her doing some of the Funny Girl tour, which Smith will kick off next year. ‘Hopefully I’ll do the tour; but it hasn’t been settled yet.’
Natasha’s a funny girl in real life, too. I’m still chuckling over what she told me about the time she and her boyfriend were staying with her parents in Hampshire (they live opposite a dairy farm).
‘One morning he thought his phone was vibrating, but I said: “No, it’s the cows mooing.”’
I guess it’s the way she tells ’em.
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