GLT's 'Dreamgirls' is ambitious

“We are dreamgirls.”

For budding female vocal artists, these simple lyrics conjure dreams of hard work, success and fame.

For a bunch of talented young singers from Mississippi Valley State University, they represent a first attempt at musical theater on a community stage and also a lot of hard work.

For Dr. Alphonso Sanders, Valley professor and director of Greenwood Little Theatre’s upcoming production of the musical “Dreamgirls,” it’s a first stab at directing a full-length musical production.

“I told my cast this is going to be the best performance and the worst performance of my theatrical career, because I’m not going to do it again,” Sanders said with a laugh.

For Greenwood Little Theatre, it’s the biggest show of the year, set to open March 1 for a four-show run.

Sanders said Cameron Abel, a regular performer and board member of Greenwood Little Theatre, approached him some time back, citing the need for collaboration between Greenwood, the university and its students.

“We talked about staging a show with a largely African- American cast, and I think I was pretty ambitious to pick ‘Dreamgirls,’” Sanders said.

He had performed as a musician in a stage production of the play before but had never directed for the theater. Song-heavy, with multiple subplots and a large cast of characters, “Dreamgirls” was indeed a stretch for a neophyte director.

“The cast inherited a novice director, and I inherited many novice performers,” Sanders said.

Conceived originally as a vehicle for singer Jennifer Holliday and a long-running hit on Broadway, the play opened in 1981 and won multiple Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical.

The film, which debuted in 2006, starred Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy, among other big names.

The students from Valley who make up the bulk of the cast, many of them choir members, were not aware of the musical play, but most were familiar with the movie version of “Dreamgirls.”

Sanders said the play’s depiction of the potholes along the road to fame and stardom reflect realities about the music business that haven’t changed since the era depicted in the play, the 1960s and ’70s, when all-female acts such as the Supremes and the Shirelles were on the rise.

In “Dreamgirls,” as in real life, artistic vision and commercial viability are often on a collision course — causing compromise, hurt feelings, rifts in friendships and difficulty remaining true to that vision.

Gender and race issues crop up as well in the play, with black musicians beginning to succeed in the mainstream American music scene and women struggling to claim their work as their own.

“With all the music that has come out of the Delta, it made sense to me to bring a heightened consciousness of that to the community,” Sanders said.

Pulling the play together has been a mammoth task, with a few pitfalls.

At a rehearsal last week, Sanders stood in for one of the principal characters, R&B singer Jimmy Early, played in this production by Greenville singer Albert Folk, who came down with the flu and ended up hospitalized.

“He’s out of the hospital now, and we’re hoping for the best,” Sanders said.

Folk is one of the few members of the cast who has worked as a stage musician, largely as a stand-in for Mississippi Slim, according to Sanders.

His character, Jimmy Early, is a James Brown-type dynamo of a performer for whom the Dreamgirls, early in their career, perform as backup singers.

“He comes to rehearsal in character,” Sanders said. “When he was first cast, the others were just shocked. He came in with the understanding that he was Jimmy Early.”

Sanders said the most identifiable aspect of theatrical work for him is the adrenaline rush that comes once all the preparation has been done and it’s showtime.

He and the cast have been working together since January. As with most  productions, especially musicals with so many moving parts, everything comes together at the last minute.

Dawn Whitfield, an administrative assistant in the Department of Fine Arts at Valley, was tagged to help with choreography for the show and has been working on multiple aspects of the production, including ferrying Valley students back and forth from campus to Greenwood over the last two months.

“They are college students, and they do have a lot on their plates with school work,” Whitfield said. “It’s very inspiring. They’re just really excited. I’ve gotten really close to them.”

Stage and costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee of Charleston is costuming the play and has been both a calming influence and a big help in the last few weeks, Sanders said.

On the Greenwood Little Theatre front, this year’s president, Hank Lamb, has been an indispensable and steady presence and Sanders’ “greatest moral support.

“No matter what has happened, he’s been there to lift us back up,” Sanders said. “He just loves the idea of seeing the progress of the play.”

Lamb said he has done everything from babysitting a cast member’s 1-year-old in the lobby so the mother could rehearse to mopping up leaks from all the recent rains.

“My love of the theater has to do with appreciation for God-given talent,” Lamb said, “and there are some amazing singers in this production.”

Alicia Dallas